“Original ideas”

Photo by Greg Rakozy

No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun
It’s never what you do, but how it’s done

I write about a lot of stuff and I assume I know next to nothing about any of it. Sometimes I’ll add plenty of references and footnotes — when I have the time or when I feel the topic requires it. I usually enjoy adding references, since the process of searching for the right reference forces me to realize again how little I know about the topic I naively tackled. It also forces me to make sure that at least one other person in the history of humankind said something similar and I could potentially shift blame on them for whatever I got wrong. I do find footnotes intriguing: I learned from Dirk Baecker how a single footnote can become a wormhole that takes the reader into a different mind; how it can be the hiding place for the humor that did not fit into an academic text; how it can connect or delineate; how it can spur curiosity or express gratitude.

I know that not everyone relates to footnotes and references in this way, though. They can distract the reader, just like this hyperlinked text. Or the reader might already be exhausted from making their way through the actual text and has no intention of straying even further. For that reason, some texts will come naked without the armor of a footnote or reference, but that does not mean I claim full responsibility for the thoughts I express, nor that that they are particularly original. I believe two things about “original ideas”:

We overestimate the uniqueness of our human experiences. Every one of us is tired sometimes, gets hungry or thirsty, has seen the sun rising and felt rain on their skin, broke a bone or a heart, experienced gravity, laughed or felt sad. Most feelings have been felt and most thoughts have been thought at some point by someone. I can distinguish for myself whether an idea that arose feels more like a memory, like something I have seen or heard before, or whether it feels unique. The unique ones come with an extra dose of excitement, a little tingling in the body. Nevertheless, I am aware that they are only unique to me, that it is the first time my synapses fire this way — but that some other brain out there has probably formed this thought long before mine did. It must not even have been a human brain — or any brain, for that gray matter — that already expressed what I am thinking: Just read it somewhere here.

At the same time, we underestimate the uniqueness of our human experiences. Just because someone else might have formulated a sentence that sounds similar to something that I want to write, it does not mean we are expressing similar experiences. I doubt that every “I love you” that is whispered, cried, shouted or awkwardly mumbled on this planet refers to exactly the same underlying emotion. I doubt that everybody who says that “human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” envisions the same rights or shares the same understanding of freedom. This goes beyond semantics. We all look up to the same sky, yet we all see a different sky. One might reach for an umbrella when dark clouds are moving in, another one might head back indoors. Or grab a set of pencils and start drawing.

Based on our individual experiences and our individual perception and cognition, every idea is created in a different context and every thought comes to life in a different universe. The beauty of our ecology of mind is that we can reach from one universe to another, that our ripples transcend ourselves. This makes me proud and confident enough to start writing — and humble enough to continue.

Interested in all ways to understand this world. Looking for questions, not answers. Curious about the human and the digital. — bjornb@mailbox.org