Make Free — Who You Calling Unoriginal?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but holy awesome, there is a lot of stuff lying around. If you want some high-density memory, you can just go get it off the shelf — no need to shut yourself up in the basement for a year winding cores.

Componentized pieces like Arduino boards are likewise wonderfully convenient, getting a lot of the finicky stuff out of the way so that you can focus on creating. We’ve got highly polished text editors, web servers, operating systems; whole libraries of preconfigured virtual machines; mountains of cheap electronic toys to raid for parts.

The proliferation of stuff isn’t without its problems (there’s a patch of plastic garbage bigger than Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), but there’s a lot of good news for makers in the stuff explosion.

For starters, just consider the opportunities that arise from standardized packaging (“To make your cantenna, first drill a hole in the cholesterol count on the back of the Pringles can; then puncture the Pringles mascot’s left eye, nose, and left lapel.”)

Having a lot of stuff lying around opens the door for a different kind of innovation than was characteristic of previous generations. You can buy a whole, fully assembled radio and innovate by changing its firmware so that it does something the inventor never considered. You can innovate by developing Chumby widgets, or by modifying standardized knitting patterns to make them more mathematically interesting.

You can even innovate by doing less (as Brian Eno’s aphorism goes, “Not doing the thing that nobody had ever thought of not doing.”) Think of the iPod, which succeeded in part by having fewer features and doing less than the confusing, cluttered first-wave MP3 players that preceded it.

Or you can innovate by finding a way to overcome social problems that prevented a technical fix. Cipla, an Indian pharmaceutical company, took advantage of India’s compulsory license on anti-AIDS drugs (a compulsory license requires pharma companies to sell their drugs to all comers at a set fee) in order to create an anti-AIDS cocktail that combined drugs from rival manufacturers. Before Cipla’s innovation, people living with AIDS had to take these pills separately, which is error-prone and difficult (especially for kids). Because of Cipla’s legal innovation, they were able to technically innovate and produce an AIDS pill that saves lives.

And yet … there’s a strain of thinking that says it’s somehow cheating to innovate by remixing or reconfiguring other people’s existing inventions — that it’s not really yours unless you design it from the ground up. But everything was invented once — wheels, pencils, math, light bulbs. It’s literally impossible to create without standing on the shoulders of giants (this sentence was created with raw material provided by Mr. Isaac Newton, whose contribution is gratefully acknowledged herein).

There’s nothing wrong with etching your own circuit boards instead of using an Arduino if that’s what floats your boat. There’s nothing wrong with inventing exciting new compounds instead of mixing up stuff from a chem supply house if it makes you happy.

But there’s no virtue in eschewing existing tools simply to be more “original.” You’d fire an accountant who announced that he couldn’t do your taxes until he finished reinventing double-entry bookkeeping. You’d get out of a taxi whose driver was testing out octagonal wheels just to be different from the pack.

Great ideas may involve reinventing the wheel, but they may not. If you’ve got a wonderful idea that you can try out more quickly with off-the-shelf parts, give your imagination its due and let it get right to the good part, without having to boringly invent stuff that already exists.

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Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist.

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