Everything is a remix (redux)

Everything is a remix is a phrase that has always annoyed me. As someone in pursuit of originality (to a debilitating degree), I felt like this couldn’t be true. If everything was a remix, then how did the first of anything come to be?

When I was researching the brain for my article about BCIs, I encountered the idea that our imagination is just memory. For us to even imagine something, we need to first have the memory of it already. All knowledge and imagination are simply recalling things we already know. This idea was both counterintuitive and obvious to me at the same time.

Imagine you were born in a dark cave. You never leave the cave. All your life you only experienced darkness.

Would it be possible to sit and think yourself into novel ideas with no prior experiences? My hypothesis is no.

Everything we know as humans is in relation to our physical experiences with the world. We know what hot means because we’ve felt it at some point. Even the metaphors and abstract concepts we learn are rooted in ideas we understand from our physical environment.

When I first heard “Everything is a remix”, it felt limiting. It immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Does it mean we can’t be original? No. Instead, it suggests that creativity and originality come from our unique combination of existing ideas. This was a click moment for me.

The creative mind is like a big pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Some pieces were made by other people—inspirational words of advice, an intriguing screenshot from a game you’ve never heard of, a haunting melody—and some are gained through life experiences. Some pieces are already connected, either because they came that way or because while you were walking down the street or taking a shower they somehow found each other. Sometimes a single piece is missing, and once that piece is uncovered, two other pieces from different ends of the pile can finally be connected. It’s important to accumulate many, many jigsaw pieces, since the more you have available, the more things you can build. But eventually you have to sit down and start sifting through the pieces to put them all together. This is the “work” part of creation.

Derek Yu, Spelunky

Everything is a remix doesn’t mean there are no new ideas. It means the ingredients we all use are already there. There are no completely new ingredients1. Our creativity comes from a novel combination of ideas people haven’t done before. Where I think you can take this idea the wrong was is to give up on originality and treat it like an excuse for copycat work. Why bother, everything it a remix anyway.

To maximize your ability to come up with new ideas, gather as many raw materials —experiences and memories—as possible. And get to remixing.

  1. For now. Who knows what discoveries are yet to be made. ↩︎

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