The book of Ecclesiastes in the Christian bible contains a much-quoted and painfully accurate phrase: 'There is nothing new under the sun.'
This simple thought is the reason why originality or uniqueness cannot be part of any definition of creativity or innovation. EVERYTHING is, on one level or another, a remix of something that has gone before it.
Not Much Scope
Western pop music, for example, operates on a scale with 8 notes in it... 2 of which are the same pitch, but just different intensities. So, when we say one pop song is original compared to another, what we are saying is that they have come up with some pleasing, completely new combination of 8 notes.
When you consider the millions of pop songs that have been written since the 50’s you can see that this cannot possibly be true. What we mean is that someone has created something different enough from the existing songs to be pleasingly new. Not the same thing as original.
There’s another quote that has been doing the rounds for around 1892: Good artists copy, great artists steal. This thought has proved so powerful that over a century of creators have used and sought to make it their own including T.S. Elliot, Goethe, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, William Faulkner, Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso…
But essentially the core of the truism remains: Everything new is built upon the bones of what came before it.
On Youtube, there is a video called The 4 Chords by a New Zealand outfit called The Axis Of Awesome. In the video, they play a medley of around 200 songs that all use the same 4 chords in the same order… and before they point it out, you would never have guessed.
What’s magic to you is technology to Experts
The point is that newness, innovation, magic… it’s all in the eye of the beholder. The trick, and that’s all it is, is to tweak the final expression enough so that it is reminiscent of the original while being a new thing in its own right.
VOIP calling is an extension of telephoning which is an extension of letters, which is an extension of the town crier which is an extension of oral history. At their core, these things are not very different at all. But their details vary massively.
As a poet, I often compose verses according to the melody of whatever rock song is currently stuck in my head. I don't use any of their words, but I use the melody to drive the rhythm and syllable count of what I write. I am essentially stealing their melody. BUT because I am writing poetry, you will probably never know, and nor would they (sorry struggling musicians!) So am I really stealing something, when what I am stealing cannot be heard?
The Next Steps
Next time you're stuck, look for someone who has solved a similar problem or created a similar solution to what you need. Then ask yourself, will this work in my situation. Use it as a blueprint, adapt, change, steal, rewrite, remix. Yes, you could burst a blood vessel desperately seeking an original answer. But chances are you won’t.
Chances are, stealing something and adapting it will work better.
Chances are, whatever idea you come up with anyway, is stolen, you just haven’t realised it yet!