Everything old is new again

05 August 2010 » Opinion, Thoughts, Writing

The New York Times has published two articles recently about the perception of a rise in plagiarism in the current school-age, digitally native generation:

In a highly technologized culture where information is cheap and easily copied, students can no longer be trusted or expected to make the effort to be creative, critical and original thinkers.

It’s far too easy nowadays to remix what’s already out there and in so doing, not to properly attribute a source.

Laziness and unoriginality
In the latter Times article, Sarah Wilensky – a college student herself – decries what she sees as both laziness and unoriginality in her peers. Institutions that don’t stridently enforce the rules only accelerate the disturbing trend.

“…Relaxing plagiarism standards “does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness… You’re not coming up with new ideas if you’re grabbing and mixing and matching,” said Ms. Wilensky… in a column in her student newspaper headlined “Generation Plagiarism.”

“It may be increasingly accepted, but there are still plenty of creative people — authors and artists and scholars — who are doing original work… It’s kind of an insult that that ideal is gone, and now we’re left only to make collages of the work of previous generations.”

Combining old elements
But it’s very interesting to contrast this urgent, modern lament against some thoughts from a 1965 book on advertising, “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young, in a chapter titled “Combining Old Elements”:

With regard to the general principles which underlie the production of ideas, it seems to me that there are two which are important.

The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.

This is, perhaps, the most important fact in connection with the production of ideas…

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. to others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts…

The point is, of course, that when relationships… are seen they lead to the extraction of a general principle. This general principle, when grasped, suggests the key to a new application, a new combinations, and the result is an idea.

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

Prior art is everywhere
Young argues that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with leveraging work done by others, in fact it’s the only sensible way to make progress in a society (and run a successful ad campaign). He doesn’t ever consider attribution of these newly forged ideas in his essay.

Moving from abstract ideas to a concrete example, consider a beautiful and unique building near you. It’s largely created from well accepted architectural patterns, common construction tools, and zoning standards. You don’t see attributions on these edifices. They’re not in the blueprints or on the cranes either.

Maybe educating students and aspiring authors to properly credit their sources is the wrong approach altogether. In many ways, it’s a distraction from original thought and pure innovation.

A proposal for a read-mostly society
I believe it should no longer be the burden of the student or writer or speaker to quote his source… it should be assumed, by default, he is building on the work of others and attempting to convey a new idea built on those foundations.

Instead, it should now be up to the reader to accept that the work is derivative and take on the responsibility to vet the work.

Current plagiarism software should instead help suggest attributions… it does, in fact, rely on the same technology to check content against an existing pool of sources. With networked e-book readers and smartphones paired to efficient search algorithms, this should become ever easier.

How can you tell if a piece of work contains original research, legitimate sources or draws reasonable conclusions? Use the reader technology, find the sources and judge for yourself.

Beyond lifting the burden on authors to free them to focus on their original idea, this shift would empower readers to engage their critical thinking facilities through constant and simple source checking. This approach could also neutralize writers with an agenda who may decide to remix ideas selectively to skew a point.

In a technological society formed mostly of passive content consumers and relatively few active content producers this can only be a good thing.

Footnote
Oh, and as far as the unoriginal title to this blog post. Who should I attribute it to, Duke University or the Barenaked Ladies?

I’ll let you and Google decide.