Everything Under the Sun: Why Originality is More Prevalent Than You Think (Updated)


You know the saying: "There's nothing new under the sun." The idea is that nothing is original. Everything that can be done has been done. People claim that nothing can truly rip something else off because everything's always been created. They point to Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and claim that the monomyth has got it all covered.

These people are wrong.

Before, I get into that, however, I need to explain why this philosophy is so dangerous. First, and most obvious, is that it's a defensive argument made to detract from the point at hand. Plagiarism is one of the greatest crimes a supposedly creative individual can commit. To steal ideas from another--to prove oneself utterly devoid of creativity--is unforgivable. If the accusation of plagiarism is made, then simply stating "oh, well, nothing is original" won't cut it. It's as bad an invalid an argument as "you try better." It's an argument made to obfuscate the issue; it defends without tackling the accusation itself.

Secondly, it's limiting. The suggestion that nothing in original means that there's no point in trying to do something new or interesting because it's already been done. It is a claim that has no other effect but to disarm and discourage--to reign in creativity. To say that there is nothing new is to say that any attempt at newness will meet with failure. It is a negative, inhibiting statement. "You can't..." is creativity's enemy.

"But," some of you may say, "what does it matter when the statement's true?"

Fortunately for us, it isn't.

See, to understand originality, you have to understand knowledge. The Greek philosophers debated about this. One school of thought suggested that we gained all knowledge through rational thought, or reasoning. They suggested that you could gain all knowledge through reason and intuition. Geometry and mathematics are subjects that can be determined through pure reason.

The Empiricists, on the other hand, believed that, to gain knowledge, you must first experience a thing. How, for instance, could you reason the existence of a cat? You would have to see or be told of a cat before you could have knowledge of that cat's existence.

The truth, as it often is, happens to be a bit more complex: you need both. Without experience, you would have little to reason about, and without reason, you would have very little to interpret your experience. This is how all humans process knowledge: we experience and think. There is nothing we create without some prior frame of reference from which to create it.

Nothing, then, is completely, perfectly, purely sourceless. You will never have an idea that is completely divorced from every other idea that has ever been experienced. Original ideas are not some perfect, pure, primordial concept. They are not completely foundationless ideas. They're something else.

An original idea, simply put, is the unique synthesis of knowledge.

Think about it like this: imagine that ideas are food. Imagine that you have decided to make an original dish--something no one's ever made before. So you take some chocolate and--"HEY. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?CHOCOLATE HAS BEEN USED BEFORE! YOUR DISH IS UNORIGINAL!"

That would be absurd. The original dish is the combination of all those other ingredients, not the ingredients themselves, or even the way certain things are cooked. In this context, a rip-off would be creating an almost identical dish, seemingly in an attempt to replicate that dish, changing just enough (such as the brand of food used, or perhaps the species of fruit, grain, or vegetable) so that it seems different. When taking unique ingredients--or even familiar processes--and creating something new, then you have created something original.

Originality is out there. Sure, it might have been influenced or inspired by the creator's knowledge and experience, but that doesn't make it a ripoff, much less unoriginal. Star Wars, despite claims to the contrary, is original, because it's a unique pastiche of cliches from all over.

It's when you make something with the intent to copy someone else that you become unoriginal, which is where Playstation All-Star Battle Royale comes in. Sony's only intent with PASBR is to try to emulate Nintendo's success. They're not there to make a great game, and it shows.

It's not just Sony who's doing this either: the industry, at large, is guilty of ripping each other off. Instead of making interesting, original ideas, they're just attempting to ride the wave of someone else's success. It's a creatively void state of mind. True success will never be had when you do this.

Call of Duty 4 worked because it was original. While other games had done modern military conflict, regenerating health, and scripted sequences, Call of Duty put them together in a way that had never been done before, and spawned one of the most successful video game franchises in history. The Old Republic, on the other hand, has failed precisely because it did nothing new. It simply emulated World of Warcraft, and came across as a soulless mess.

Originality is where you find a creative work's soul. Without that, you have nothing.