Q&A TED Talks

Are all new things a mash-up of what came before? A Q&A with Kirby Ferguson

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Kirby Ferguson speaks at TEDGlobal 2012

In today’s TEDTalk, director Kirby Ferguson outlines a bold vision of creativity — that it’s not about dreaming up a new song, a new piece of art or a new form of technology in a vacuum, but instead about remixing what has come before. In his fast-paced talk, Kirby reveals that many of our most iconic thinkers — from Henry Ford to Bob Dylan — embraced this idea of what it means to create.

As we watched Kirby’s talk, a slew of questions popped to mind. What does this mean for creative people? Can we reach a point where ideas become too self-referential? Is every song a cover song? And so TED’s Ben Lillie called Kirby to discuss and dive further into the ideas he posited in his video series, Everything Is a Remix.

We have this intuitive notion of creativity, of this brilliant genius who creates something totally new and wows everybody. And what you’re saying in Everything Is a Remix is that’s not the case, that people always have influences and are putting things together that existed before in new ways. So, what is creativity? What is that spark that would differentiate a new song — as opposed to a great cover?

It’s copying, then transforming and combining. I think that is creativity. Whether something is good or bad or revolutionary or derivative is about how much work you put into it, how long you’ve been doing it, how sophisticated the combinations are, how inspired the combinations are. If you’re sticking to a certain realm and you’re not really getting broad influences into what you’re doing, then I think your outcomes are going to be limited.

It’s sort of like building a platform and then building a platform on top of that and then building a platform on top of that and getting higher and higher that way. I’m going to break this metaphor, I think—but the first thing you build out of old ideas, then you can start building things out of the ideas you’ve created that were themselves built out of old ideas. But the chunks that you’re using at the point are the things that you made. When you keep layering like that you can end up to the point where you seem like you’re off on your own, doing your own thing, but the fact is you’ve just traveled the route of copying and transforming and combining on the work of the people that came before you.

You’re suggesting that creativity happens on a spectrum. Is there a bright line between a cover and an original piece?

I would say absolutely not. I mean, a problem with creativity and the law is that the law uses this terminology of bright lines, and bright lines can be hard to find in real life. Real life is a bunch of shades of gray. It can be hard to distinguish between what’s original and what’s not.

In music, I think you have to lean towards it being a cover. If you take somebody else’s song and you make a new song and it sounds mostly like that other song, I think you have to say, “Ok, this is still a cover.”

For instance, Jimi Hendrix’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” That’s a very, very different take of that song [from Bob Dylan’s], and yet it’s still a cover song because it’s got the same lyrics and it’s sort of in the same form. And then there are weird cases like Led Zeppelin, who I talked about in the video series. Like “Dazed and Confused” — a lot of people think that’s a cover song of Jake Holmes’ song because you can hear the evolution. You can hear them doing covers of Jake Holmes’ song and you can hear it turning into their “Dazed and Confused.” But they claimed it was theirs, and a lot of people think that it’s plagiarism, they should have credited — at least co-credited — Jake Holmes for the lyrics at the very least.

Is there an equivalent to cover songs in other creative industries?

Movie remakes, for sure. There are lots of remakes happening now. So yeah, it certainly gets done in a lot in other forms as well.

And then you get into technology. I was reading today about the Apple lawsuit over the Samsung phone, where Apple claims Sony copied the iPhone. Is there some sense in which you could say that was Samsung’s cover of Apple?

I wouldn’t give Samsung that much credit. And keep in mind, I am thoroughly opposed to most of these lawsuits that Apple is foisting on Samsung. At the same time, I think Samsung are being copycats a lot of the time. I think they’re being derivative and that’s not cool, and it’s not creatively interesting what they’re doing. But should they be able to do it? I think they should. If you keep going with this logic of “Apple owns ‘slide to unlock'” and “Apple owns the rubber-band effect” — if they own all these little pieces which are really broad in application, then everybody’s got to work around these things. All the phones are going to work differently, people are going to be getting sued left and right. I mean, it’s just a mêlée. Software patents I think fundamentally do not make sense. I think Samsung is definitely being derivative, but I do think it’s their right to be derivative.

Given this idea of the remix as a way to produce things, you begin to worry that what we produce as a culture is not innovating things so much as recycling old things. Is that something that you worry about? How do you avoid if?

I don’t worry about it because it’s kind of inevitable. I think you’re going to be misunderstood in whatever you say. Some people take what I’m saying to mean is that copying is OK, and it’s OK to not be original. It’s OK to not be terribly interesting. And I do agree with those things because I think you’ve got to start there. You’re not going to be good at whatever you’re doing at first. You’re most certainly not going to be original. So, as a phase, you do have to feel OK about being at that level. But you’ve got to work past that.

Expanding a bit: We have these phenomenal tools to make it really easy, technologically, to put things together. Is there some danger that we become so distracted by that ability and ease that people stop creating genuinely new movies, say, and start just completely re-creating them all the time, or mixing elements of them?

I personally think we’re already there. I mean, I think we’ve always been there. I think that’s the way that it goes. I think most people are going to be mediocre. That’s just sort of the law of population. If everybody’s doing something, then most of them are not going to be doing particularly interesting stuff. Most people make derivative stuff.

The difference now is that you can have a crazy volume of people who are doing mediocre stuff. I’m not sure how that would influence our perception that there are millions of people out there who have a bad EP on iTunes or whatever. I think mediocrity is something that we’ve always had. I think it has always been what most work is. And I think that always will be.

“Everything Is a Remix” is basically a modest way of looking at your work, not thinking that you’re summoning stuff out of the void. You’re just being of service — you’re taking work and building on it. It brings creativity down to earth a little bit. Some people don’t like that, but I think it’s a good thing because I think that’s the reality of it. It is work at the end of the day — it’s not some sort of magic show.

It’s interesting. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDTalk, she talks about the idea we have that people are geniuses, and how that puts tremendous pressure on artists, and how other people think the genius comes to you, it’s something separate and you happen to be enacting it. At some level, are you arguing that the genius is just everyone else around you and sometimes you happen to be in the right place where all that comes together?

I think that’s fair. Where I diverge from a lot of human history is that they think that genius is God or is nature or is something other than us people. And I think it is us people. It’s the culture that you’re in, the culture that preceded you. I would hope that most people who get to some level of achievement know that they got kind of lucky. Steve Jobs was lucky to be living where he was when he was 16 years old. Bill Gates was lucky to have access to the computers that he had access to in Seattle. I’m not saying it is necessarily the pivotal element, but it’s there.

We think of computers as having dramatically changed the way that the creativity and innovation work. Do you think that’s true that the Internet and massive connectivity are actually changing things, or is this just a new incarnation of what we’ve seen before?

Oh, unquestionably, I think it’s an enormous game changer. I mean I’m part of it. Being able to do this video series in the way that I’ve done it is a product of the Internet — that I can chop something together on my computer, put it up on the Internet, and a week later a couple hundred thousand people have seen it. It’s only now that I can do that. It’s democratized media creation, of course. More people can reach big audiences, and if you put good ideas out there, they can potentially reach a lot of people.

Is the massive democratization and massive reach of the internet more likely to create lots of pockets of innovation that can suddenly find people, or is it going to make the world flat and homogenize taste?

I tend to think there will continue to be lots of diversity. I think of the Internet as being a very diverse place. Politically speaking, if you’re a conservative or a liberal there’s certain places you just aren’t going to go unless you’re going there to ridicule it.

I mean, there are lots of bad things that have happened because of the Internet. There’s plenty of behaviors that have become commonplace that we used to only see in people scrawling hateful messages on a bathroom wall. Now you go on YouTube and that kind of stuff’s all over the place. I’m definitely concerned about people’s ability to focus. There’s just so much out there that you have such immediate access to that I think people lose track, and sometimes lose the ability to go deeper with ideas. But I’m an optimist, and I tend to think that things will level out, will find some sort of equilibrium. I generally feel that good ideas will win out. I have faith that if you’re putting good messages out there, if you’re using good techniques that are good for everybody, that are pro-social in some way, that they will spread.

You talk about ideas being mashed together, and how you need to pay respect to the idea, to the complexity of it. And I’m just curious how you feel about the practice of attaching ideas to people — in particular, the way TED does it? Because you know we’ll publish a video that will be something like, “Kirby Ferguson: Everything Is a Remix” and directly attach your name to that idea.

I think it’s inevitable and I think it’s understandable, because creators do matter. I’m saying that much of what we are comes from us, comes from our culture, comes from everybody. It doesn’t mean that individuals aren’t important. Of course individuals are important because that’s all we are, a collection of individuals. I think maybe it’s kind of an American thing to fear collectivism. But just because we understand that our creativity is collective to some extent doesn’t mean the flip side applies. Like Hans Rosling. Only he can do that. I know that data could be found lots of different places, I’m sure, but he’s the only guy that can tell the story that way. He puts his own spin on it, uses his own voice to get it out there. That’s extremely important.