"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
December 9, 2010

Copy Culture

Trying to solve an Angry Birds level sent me on a search for online solutions. But, is a problem for us that’s so easy to find answers, and is our copy culture a growing consequence of this?

Like most other smartphone and iPad users, I’m addicted to the game Angry Birds. There’s a holiday edition with some enjoyably tricky levels. And, a puzzle per day, like an Advent Calendar.

Yesterday I was stuck trying to figure out the latest challenge. Then, I remembered a conversation a couple of weeks back where someone was saying that you can see Angry Birds levels on YouTube.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that a simple search yielded numerous videos of the level I was struggling with. Convenient, yes. But, troubling as well.

Copy Culture In An Age Of Abundant Information

Having grown up in the “dark ages,” where knowledge was golden (because it was rare), I’m always adjusting to this new era of cheap and ubiquitous information. Still, I’m cautious to speak out in favour of an old school value like working things out for yourself.

“What I learned on my own I still remember” Nicholas Nassim Taleb

Puzzles and puzzle based games are fun. There’s an inherent satisfaction in being patient and smart enough to find the solution. However, if the formula is just a quick google search away, what does that do to the game? Does it diminish the challenge and the possibility for intellectual growth?

After all, there’s a big difference between copying somebody else’s answer and working one out for yourself. Both might solve the puzzle. But, only one offers a path for personal growth and lessons you can apply for future puzzles.

Is Copy Culture Diminishing Our Originality?

You often hear people say all music sounds the same these days?
It’s a common complaint that most popular music sounds the same these days. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Every era has its “sound.” But, it used to be that if you wanted to copy the sound of a hit record all you had was your ears and the limited equipment available to you to try and recreate the tones you heard. As a kid, when we heard a great guitar sound, we might’ve had a vague idea what guitar or amplifier the guitarist was using. But, we had no idea about the exact equipment, how it was modified, the settings used, or how it was recorded.

Now, all of that detailed information is available in articles, interviews, and videos. If you want to copy the sound of Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray Vaughn you can right down to the smallest details.

What used to take years now takes weeks. If every studio is etting up their microphones the same way, using the same EQ and compression settings and delivering the same kinds of mastered results then how can we be surprised so much music sounds the same?

Resisting Copy Culture

The path to mastery was paved with a lot of innovation. When you couldn’t easily copy you had to discover for yourself. A lot of the tunes and riffs I wrote, especially in my earlier years came from trying (and failing) to learn songs by ear. It’s silly I know, but it was easier to write a new song, than copy an existing one. If I were young now I’d be a lot less frustrated since there’s so many videos teaching you how to play songs. But, I’d be less original.

I’m not sure easy answers are always good ones. Sometimes. Maybe. But, when we copy someone else’s solution, we don’t really grapple as deeply with the problem and, as a consequence, we’re more likely to be stumped again by the same problem when it comes up.

The irony is we copy to avoid failure. But, it’s important to fail. We learn some of our most important lessons in the shadow of failure.

Toni 10 years ago

You’re not alone by any means.

In some areas, such as science, many creative people deliberately obfuscate their work in the papers they publish, especially if there is a commercial angle in it, in order to prevent others repeating the work. I have recently ‘enjoyed’ the challenge of unpicking someone else’s experiments in order to create materials that they created, though in a slightly different way, hopefully with fewer of the flaws their materials contained originally.

So although the net is an enormously powerful tool, it may not provide key information that allows dot 1 to be joined to dot 2. I suspect that the ‘best’ use of intelligence will not be in obtaining data, but knowing what to do with it. The information I needed was all freely available, but assembling it in a way that allowed me to create a process (that started in March this year and won’t finish until next summer) was less easy. And there’s a lot of ‘art & creativity’ in this area.

As for music, I have happy memories of trying to create the sound of Eric Clapton playing a Les Paul/SG through a cranked Marshall stack, but using an AC30 and Danelectro guitarlin copy. Getting something that sounded close(ish) was quite pleasing.

Can'Tell 10 years ago

Deep topic. Ok I have to say I’m guilty, cause I googled for solutions when I got stucked in a game and didn’t have much patience nor time to find out the solution myself.

So I cheated while playing Plants vs. Zombies, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret of Monkey Island etc. Well I’m also stuck at a certain level in Angry Birds, but I haven’t googled for the solution yet lol! I admit I got bored with the games I finished, aside from Plants vs. Zombies which I still play a lot.

But isn’t the world wide web great(I even wrote a song about the www)? I can’t remember anymore what I used to do before the internet existed. Or I can’t imagine life anymore without it. Got a problem with something? Use Google and you’ll get the answer. You can even build your own nuclear bomb or perform a surgery just by using Google! lol!

“But, when we copy someone else’s solution, we don’t really grapple as deeply with the problem and, as a consequence, we are more likely to be stumped again by the same problem when it comes up.”

I don’t totally agree. I believe it depends on how often you use or apply it to your work, then it sticks to your brain. It’s like a push in the right direction or a guide. Of course it’s also important to understand the “whys” and not just adapting the solution.

“Moreover, we rob ourselves of the chance to fail. And, as so often is the case in life, we learn our most important lessons in the shadow of failure.”

I got a different opinion regarding failures. An example of my way of thinking is, why would I go over that bridge, if the one before me already told me, that the bridge is broken? Or enter a dead end road?

What I’m trying to say is, through observations, one can learn a lot, and by learning a lot, you don’t need to make or experience the same mistakes, cause the pattern mostly stays the same.

If there is already knowledge available for me to absorb, I’d rather adapt the knowledge, than invest a lot of time, effort and money, just to experience it myself and perhaps fail. I know there isn’t any 100% tested no failure thing in life, but we can minimize failures, by adapting knowledge from successful ones.

    Fernando Gros 10 years ago

    Can’Tell – thanks for your comment. You are right that we now have access to a lot of collective wisdom and it makes sense to draw on that sometimes. These days I would rather search online for hotel and restaurant reviews than rely on “professional” reviewers. Moreover, we often can’t find expertise in stores and retailers, so it pays to search online for ways to fix and maintain stuff.

    In those situations the online search is a step towards one’s own opinion, or experience. That’s always been part of human experience, we just have a great new, convenient tool for that – cool.

    My concern, however, is that we are getting to a point where that’s all we do. Copy, mashup, rehash, recycle. Jarod Lanier makes the bold claim that there have been no new genres of western music created since the internet was popularised.

Mike Mahoney 10 years ago

Cheat codes for games were around way before the internet!

There is definitely a balance between easy information and discovery. The easier that information comes, the more tempting it is to simply scratch the surface.

When I was in school, there was the same discussion over Monarch Notes and Cliff Notes. Teachers hated them, and would often design tests to include information that wasn’t in the guides. Soon it became “I’ll just watch the movie.”

I truly believe that at some point, just about all information will be available in the cloud, accessible anywhere. What remains to be seen is how we discipline ourselves to handle it.

I always found it interesting that in Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic vision of the future, knowledge of just about anything was at everyone’s fingertips, yet all the heroes had read the classics.

    Fernando Gros 10 years ago

    Mike – your Star Trek example is right on the money for me.

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