We generally think of ideas as originating from the head of one person or another. But in the last few days, I’ve been hanging out with an extremely smart group of people, and it has become clear to me that many ideas have been generated that didn’t come from any one person’s mind. Rather, somebody will say something, another person will riff on that, and before you know it, an idea will start to emerge from the general mix.
In a process that would doubtless be very disturbing to an intellectual property lawyer, sometimes these ideas take a while to be born. It might take several conversations, involving dozens of participants, before an original thought evolves from initial gestation to full flowering, and in the course of that process it is not at all clear who really came up with what.
I mention this only because we live in a society where great weight is placed on the provenance of ideas. Patents are taken very seriously, and huge amounts of money are spent on their acquisition and defense. Yet the most powerful new thoughts will often come about in a way that cannot be ascribed to a single human brain, or even to any easily identifiable group of human brains.
It would be great if such ideas, born and raised in a group home, as it were, could be nurtured with the same love and attention given to those ideas developed in secrecy behind corporate lab walls. But that would require an entirely different way of thinking about ideas — one that is driven not by a desire for financial gain, but rather by our belief in the power of a good idea to help make the world a better place.