John Stossel recently published a short piece in The Freeman about ideas having sex. This naturally explains the most lucrative business sector ever seen on the Internet: idea porn.
So, when I shared this article on Facebook, and fellow fiction blogger and Star Trek fan Neil Shurley re-shared it, I thought of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Timescape.”
(Not really, but it seemed like a good segue.)
You remember the story. Captain Picard and several others of the Enterprise crew on their way back from the most boring and diverse academic conference in the history of the future, they encounter the Enterprise frozen in time in an apparent battle with a Romulan warship. Using a skin-tight subspace field, they beam over to the Enterprise and find a ship full of mannequins who wobble when you walk by them. However, much to their consternation, they discover that the Enterprise’s warp core has breached, and if time were to return to normal, the ship would explode. At this point, Captain Picard loses control of his faculties and is committed to the colony on Tantalus V, where he and Captain Kirk ride horses together in Iowa into eternity.
(The Enterprise never returns to normal, but it is said that it is repeatedly exploding and un-exploding forever in some time continuum.)
The moral of this story is that no one ever wants to hear that the universe is not in the process of exploding. There’s a comfort in knowing that an existential danger lurks right around the next blind corner, because that means the status quo is a-OK.
An acquaintance, downtrodden, once related to me a positively depressing view from a certain professor of Harvard or Yale or one of those, a piled-higher-and-deeper type who gave a speech at some ivy-league university or another, on the subject of economics. As she described it, economics is the bane of human existence, destined to cause the failure of human society. I foolishly tried to encourage her. Don’t lose heart: there may be individual economists who are pretty backwards, but economics itself still holds much hope for the future of humanity.
Oy vey! You would have thought I had just killed her favorite puppy, the way she jumped down my throat. How dare I disagree with this venerated icon of academia, of whom I had never heard before and whose name even now I cannot remember? Do I have a PhD from Harvard or Yale or some other fancy university? (Are you kidding? Even if I had, I would not admit to it, not even at gunpoint!) How much manure do I have shoveled at the end of my name? What qualifies me to state a more qualified opinion than his?
In the same way, when ideas multiply, they threaten the status quo, because they threaten to change everything for the better for everybody. (See how I tied that back to the original point? Wasn’t that clever?)
This is why people talk of others “stealing” their ideas. I once had an idea of mine stolen: I woke up one morning and it was gone! I know had gone to sleep with it the night before. I searched under my pillow, in my sheets, under my bed. I considered that maybe it had mistakenly been put in with the dirty laundry or (even worse) the trash, and even made a thorough search, for it was a valuable idea indeed. But alas, it was nowhere to be found. I can only hope the person who stole it will make better use of it than I would have, though I don’t have much faith that he will, because he didn’t earn the idea; it was mine.
As we all know, you can’t steal ideas; you can only share them. And once you do share an idea, there are now two ideas. One of them remains in your mind; the other, in the mind of the person you’re sharing it with, mixed with all the ideas that were already there when you started. And then starts a positive idea orgy, with ideas and concepts and experiences and possible futures all mixing their DNA in new and interesting ways that no one will understand until he himself shares the idea with someone else.
The Internet was built by scientists, built on this concept of sharing ideas. Look at the Web. The whole idea behind the World Wide Web is that each page links to other pages, building on the ideas in those other pages. About 70% of the web server software currently in use is open-source, developed on the concept of sharing code and algorithms. And recent political revolutions in various countries (including the defeat of SOPA and PIPA in the US) have been possible because people have been able to share their thoughts online, organizing spontaneously to make a difference in their worlds. This may be improve life for all of us in the end, but it threatens extant power structures and can be scary, because it enforces change.
At the risk of bringing down upon me the wrath of those who would rather think the world is in the process of exploding, I don’t see this trend as scary at all. Because when people share ideas freely, we all benefit from the exciting opportunities that come out of that sharing.
UPDATE: Serendipity. At about the time this post went live, Reason.TV posted the following video: “Ideas Having Sex” AConversation with JohnTierney and Matt Ridley…
“Where ideas have sex, is in technologies,” says author and biologist Matt Ridley, “we give far too much credit to individuals for innovation…all of them are standing on the shoulders of lots of other people.”