The website "I write like" has been making the rounds (apparently Kim Kardashian writes like James Joyce), even though the site's founder says there's nothing remotely scientific about it and that he was just goofing around. (For those who missed it: you paste a short writing sample in a box and click the "analyze" button. The site examines word choice and writing style and tells you what famous author the writing most resembles.)
Toronto Star writer Katie Daubs had some fun with the site last weekend, plugging in text from Dalton McGuinty, Yann Martel, and yours truly (apparently my blogging style is closest to that of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk). But behind the fun is the question of influence, which for many writers is a matter of utmost seriousness. I spent most of my twenties trying to write like David Foster Wallace and Martin Amis, and maybe Palahniuk is their bastard child. I like to think that I've evolved my own characteristic writing style, one that is authentically mine. What does it matter if I haven't?
Harold Bloom coined the term "the anxiety of influence" to refer to the sense that every artist or writer has at some point, that everything has been said, that nothing they do is original. The desire to fight free of one's influences and say something completely new is one of the driving forces of artistic creation. The downside to this, though, is that it tends to overstate the role of originality in all spheres. The fact is, even as we fetishize the authentic, the truth is that most innovations are incremental advances or simple reworkings of ideas that have been around for ages.
Keith Richards famously brushed off accusations of plagiarism by saying that he just grabs riff out of the air as they go by; Noel Gallagher of Oasis once said that when he's stuck for a song idea, he just starts playing "Octopus's Garden" until an idea comes to him. On that note, here's another passage from my chat with Matt Ridley that got cut from the print version:
CB: You have this phrase you use: innovation happens when “ideas have sex.” In Canada and elsewhere, a big locus of debate for both government and business is over “innovation”: what it is, how to invest in it and foster it. But you seem to be arguing that there is nothing rare or mysterious about it. Given a critical mass of humans and open markets, innovation happens as almost a natural process.
MR: I do, and there are a number of things going on here. The first is that we have a tendency to overestimate the grand leaps in innovation at the expense of the small steps. We do that partly because the patent system rewards us for doing that, and militates against recognizing incremental steps. And second, there is the quest for fame and glory. If you go back to any great discovery – DNA, the steam engine – you find people are pissed off because they didn’t get the credit. And you discover that the story was far more about perspiration than inspiration. To that extent, the innovation we need to be looking at is often low-tech, often small steps, often happening in small firms not ivory towers, and is often process rather than product, often boring. For example, cross docking for suppliers to Walmart is not like the laser, but might have done more for mankind.
But to your general point, I want to point to the inexorable nature of economic growth. Whatever is happening, the wars and the depressions and the dictators that are throwing it off course, whatever the picture you look at, the more global the number, the smoother the line. And whatever is going on, it is bottom up or crowd-sourced, not ordained from above, and it does look like the inevitable product of people being in the situation where they exchange is that you will get these inching forwards of technologies and ideas.