The Old, the New, and the Surprising

I was looking through the archives of my friend Max Gladstone, and found a post linking to Everything Is A Remix. The idea behind Everything Is a Remix is, fittingly, not new: everything from Beethoven’s symphonies to your vaccuum cleaner is an adaptation, a remix, a jumble of ideas taken from other places (with or without credit) and mashed together to produce something novel.

As the author of Everything Is A Remix notes, this idea clashes with common beliefs about innovation, whether in the arts or technology, being spontaneous, a stroke of genius like a flame in the night, something out of nothing. The author dismisses these beliefs as simply wrong. I disagree with him, however, and here’s where I think remixing gets interesting: while the core ideas that go into innovations are nothing more than remixes and mashups, their execution often takes us by surprise and comes off as a stroke of genius.

Let’s look at some examples of great execution*. Johann Gutenberg’s printing press was built upon a number of components, most of which had been around for centuries. Gutenberg’s own additions, such as the invention of the matrix to produce metal letters, were definitely important, but it would be silly to argue that Gutenberg invented the printing press. What Gutenberg did was make it possible for people to print hundreds of thousands of books in the span of a few years. What he ultimately enabled was the popular consumption of books. These books contained knowledge and information. Knowledge and information are magic. Gutenberg made it possible for the farmer, and the craftsman to go to a store and buy magic.

Now skip forward about five hundred years. Steve Jobs wants to build a personal computer. He takes ideas like the Graphical User Interface and the Mouse from PARC, and builds a pretty cheap machine – only a couple thousand bucks – that has moving icons and windows. Again, nothing in the Macintosh is fundamentally new, all copied or derived or improved upon. But Steve makes these computers for the middle class families, the farmers and the craftsmen of the twentieth century, and he makes them look like magic.

At first glance, Steve’s invention doesn’t look very magical – if you consider magic just knowledge and information. After all, there were plenty of computers out there in the seventies and eighties that contained knowledge and information. The problem was, these computers had text-based interfaces and obscure commands. Like scrolls in Latin and Greek, they could only be read by an elite, the geeks who had spent years learning about computers. Steve made it possible for a middle-class family to get to all that knowledge, to access the magic. The people who bought Macintoshes didn’t have to know Latin (or Assembly); they had to know how to press and hold buttons, and drag a mouse around. Boom. Magic.

These two examples are all about the power of execution. Executing on an idea is actually a pretty complicated thing. It requires great engineering and logistics, a solid understanding of marketing, and a good measure of luck. If I had to bring it all to a single word, though, “magic” would be it. Take existing ideas and turn them into something that feels like magic.

I wanted to conclude this post with more ideas about what magic actually looks like, but I feel like that’s a long enough discussion to merit an separate post. So, until next time, when I talk more about magical things and how to make them!

*material for this post collected from Wikipedia

PS I realize this post feels like it’s cribbed from Malcom Gladwell. A) That’s kind of the point and B) In my not so humble opinion, I believe I have a few ideas that differ from Mr. Gladwell’s about tipping points and making things popular (all parts of execution)… again, stay tuned till next post

PPS I originally tweeted that this post would be about Diaspora. Sorry. Well, here’s my cop-out: Diaspora is NOT magic. It’s awesome, and a great idea, but magical it is not.

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One Response to “The Old, the New, and the Surprising”

  1. Adam Fields Says:

    This is a comment I wrote a few months ago about the ideas vs. execution dichotomy: http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/04/how-to-allocate-founder-and-employee-equity.html#comment-184320225

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