There is no such thing as an original idea. The fact that Albert Einstein said this and not me only helps underlie the point. Ideas are built off other ideas, and there is nothing wrong with that. We need to recognize that the only ideas that come out of nowhere are the accidents, and even those are built off of recognizing the potential of said accident. You sit in the bath, watch the water overflow, and Eureka!, something clicks. You suddenly understand how water displacement relates to material density.
But in the past it was possible for people to invent things in different parts of the world independently of one another. Gunpowder and moveable type, for example, which was invented in the East before appearing in the West (and as far as I know weren’t imported). Likewise it was possible for more than one person to discover something, be it a medicine or a country. Sure, later in history someone would find out that someone discovered X earlier, and there would always be a search to see if someone discovered it even earlier, but at the time the new discoverer got the glory.
Well, usually… sometimes… if they had the right PR.
Thanks to the internet, however, we’re entering a time where multiple independent discoveries will be a thing of the past. You don’t have to wait a few hundred years to find out the Vikings got to the New World before Columbus, you just google it. Think you have an original idea? Think you found something no one else has? Google it and find out quickly and easily just how wrong you are, no matter where you are.
This thought struck me today as I was going for a hike. There is this nature trail I like to take that goes in a round about way to Starbucks. At one point it branches off, one path goes way off in the wrong direction over the hill and out of sight. Part of me wanted to see where it went, but it would take at least a half hour there and back to find out. I didn’t want to spend all that time if it didn’t take me somewhere cool. I hear these words come out of my mouth: “Ah, I can just use Google Maps and find out if it’s worth it later.”
Then I realized that Google Maps goes everywhere, and it is getting more sophisticated and updated all the time. Now you can use Street view to get a drive-by look at where you’re going, even in 3D. Google Earth allows you to fly over the local topography to get the lay of the land you want to travel.
On the one hand this world wide connectivity is great. Adventurers can keep in touch just about anywhere in the world, someday there will be a Tweet from Everest if there isn’t already. If you are stuck on an ice flow or lost in the woods it’s getting easier and easier to get help.
Then there’s the flip side. What is the point of searching for an ancient Peruvian temple if you can just use a search engine to find it? Someday the world will be so well mapped out there won’t be anywhere we can’t explore virtually. That’s both thrilling and sad, because it feels like there is no place left where “Beyond here there be Dragons.” For some the dragons on those maps were a warning, for others they were the goal.
If you could create a map of your life, there would still be huge swathes of it marked “Beyond here there be Dragons.” Not just places you haven’t been, but ideas and concepts you haven’t explored. Life isn’t just a physical journey, but a mental one. And much like on a real map those dragons would be a warning of places to avoid for some, while for others they would be challenges of where to explore. Self-improvement is about uncovering as much of your map as possible.
We explore our world in so many ways, but the internet seems to take a bit of the thrill away from that as well. If I have a question, there’s no need to hunt for the answer in a library, I just type it in. If I have an inkling of a thought or concept I’d normally talk about and explore, I’d probably find a dozen others online who thought of it first, and perhaps wrote about them better than I ever could have.
As time goes on will it seem more and more pointless to fill in the dark spots of our maps if the answers are just a click away?
Will we even bother to click?