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You've Probably Never Had an Original Idea

·4 mins

I’ve never liked the word “invention”; instead, I prefer the term discovery. Nobody has ever invented anything–rather, sometimes we come upon discoveries, and some people are lucky enough to figure out how to get money from them.

Whenever I think I’m clever and have somehow come upon a new idea, I have to take a step back and remind myself that nearly everything has already been tried or thought of at some point.

For any so-called “invention”, you have to ask yourself: what makes this particular thing a new creation? Everything in the universe is just an arrangement of particles: atoms, electrons, protons, photons, neutrons, and all the other subatomic particles (fermions, bosons, etc).

Who’s to say that your “invention” couldn’t be discovered by a million monkeys on the particle arrangement equivalents of typewriters? I suppose you could argue that the trick is knowing how to precisely arrange the matter into a form that provides something useful, but is that the result of genius, or did you succeed from random luck? In some cases, it might be a bit of both.

We’re all products of our environment, and while I generally reject the concept of genius, some people are indeed more skilled than others. If you consider yourself a successful inventor, you may very well be nothing but an above average monkey on the typewriter.

I’ve always found the concept of “intellectual property”, or for that matter, private property in general, to be entirely nonsensical. And while I’m not the only person with this opinion, we currently live in a world where people use violence to protect their arrangements of matter from other people because they acquired that arrangement of matter before the other person discovered it, and somehow that entitles them to use violence against the other person should they decide that they want to take that arrangement of matter from someone else. We construct institutions that use violence to enforce these rules by handing out tokens to soldiers to carry out the violence in the name of some higher authority.

Intellectual property is especially dubious in a digital world when there is effectively zero scarcity; for practical purposes, we can make infinite copies of bits, so why do we still need violence to enforce ownership of the bits? Theoretically, you could discover the same arrangement of bits by applying the monkeys-on-typewriters metaphor to any digital content, such as a video game or digital film.

We have this concept of “private property” because we’ve decided (as a species) that some people should have access to scarce things while others should not because some have acquired more tokens than others. In nature, no such thing exists. Private property is not natural; it does not exist in nature. If a tiger is hungry and wants to eat you, it will just eat you. The tiger does not have to check their bank account to ensure they can afford the cost of purchasing you as a meal; they will have their dinner with or without the requisite tokens.

Is private property bad? On its own, I think not. In many ways, private property solves problems. I believe it can reduce violence–except when it doesn’t, like when countries go to war over who gets to extract the oil in the ground over a specific region or somesuch. The funny thing about war is that it boils down to different factions using violence to settle a dispute on who has the monopoly on violence in a given region. The victor gets to rewrite history in their favour.

As a side note, I don’t have a problem with private property per se, or intellectual property for that matter; I just don’t think the government should be in the business of using violence to protect private property or businesses. You should be responsible for protecting your property, and laws like the DMCA are (in effect) remarkably stupid corporate welfare, which amounts to taxpayer-funded subsidies for copyright holders. While I’m not a fan of digital restrictions management (DRM), I would prefer companies utilize DRM than use the government as their private security force.

All this is to say that whenever you think you have an original idea, maybe do some internet research first to see how many other people have had the same idea too, and upon doing so, you’ll probably feel a bit deflated because you’ll likely realize very quickly that you aren’t as clever as you think.