Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Writing, designing, creating, stealing

Sam Harris has written a good, brief article about the Jonah Lehrer affair. Harris' post reminded me of a Malcolm Gladwell's essay in the New Yorker about how fuzzy the meaning of the word "plagiarism" is. Sometimes we plagiarize even if we are not aware of it.

As Austin Kleon suggests in his refreshing Steal Like an Artist, most of what we do is pure mashup and recycling, whether we like it or not. What makes the difference is how honest you are about what you owe, how carefully you express your gratitude for those you steal from, and how much you are able to build upon their work. Also, your integrity as a writer (or as an artist, as all this applies to visual stuff) depends on knowing that human memory is not a perfect storage of information, but a sloppy and slow relational device that doesn't really remember anything, but reconstructs bits of the past every time we retrieve them. No matter how careful you are with sources, there will always be grey areas in your writing.

I was reminded of those humbling facts while casually browsing through The Functional Art last night (it is going to press tomorrow). See the opening paragraphs of Chapter 7:



When writing those lines a year ago, the part that deals with bananas and dung beetles sprang up in my mind as a fun way to make my case. But it turns out that it may not be that original. Last week I read Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain. Its author, neuroscientist David Eagleman, also uses excrements and coprophagic creatures to make a similar point (what we find attractive or repulsive greatly depends on how it improved or harmed the lives of our ancestors). He doesn't mention any source for the analogy, as far as I saw. Is this pure coincidence? Or are Eagleman and me inadvertently quoting another author we both read in the past? Are we unconsciously stealing from someone else?

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