News & Views
When ideas have sex

There’s an amazing TED talk by Matt Ridley, called ‘When Ideas Have Sex’.
It’s about the procreation and interchange of lots of smaller ideas to form bigger ones.
And the fact that we live totally in a world of these bigger ideas.
And we don’t even know it.
Our world consists solely of bigger combinations of smaller ideas.
So nothing can be claimed by anyone.
Because nothing is completely made by anyone.
Not only that, no one even knows how to make anything.
Sure, everyone knows a little bit about making a small part of it.
Everyone contributes something towards it.
But no one can make anything on their own.
Everything is made by everyone.
So nothing is made by anyone.
He refers to a 1950s essay by an economist called Leonard Read.
It’s called “I, Pencil”.
It’s about how no one even knows all the parts of making something as simple as a pencil.
How to grow and chop the trees.
How to age, and mill, and prepare the wood.
How to make the varnish to treat the wood.
How to make the glue to hold the halves together.
How to prepare the paint for the outside.
(And all that’s before we get anywhere near the part that writes.)
How to mine the graphite.
Where to find ammonium hydroxide.
How to make sulfurated tallow by mixing animal fat and sulphuric acid.
Where to go for candelilla wax and paraffin wax.
And that’s just a simple, standard old pencil.
Probably the most basic thing that any of us have in our lives.
And, even then, all that’s without the necessary tools and transport.
Engines, oil, electrics, plastics, rubber, machinery.
And even that’s without including the people who provide the labour: their food, their drink, their clothes, their medicine, their houses.
And, if we know nothing about how a pencil is made, imagine how much we don’t know about all the other everyday things in our lives.
Even as you read this: the lightbulb above your head, the walls and windows around you, the cars going by, the watch on your wrist, the carpet under your feet, the razor you shaved with, the makeup you’re wearing, the soap and shampoo you used in the shower, the shower itself, the banknotes and change in your pocket or purse, the glasses you’re looking through, the coffee you’re drinking.
You can see we know virtually nothing about how anything in our lives is made.
Sure, we may know the general principle, but that’s all.
Just like a pencil.
We know the sharp end makes a mark on paper, and that’s it.
We don’t have a clue how the pencil, or the paper, are actually made.
And that is Matt Ridley’s and Leonard Read’s point.
We aren’t in a world where anyone can own an idea.
We’re in an ocean of ideas.
No idea that anyone can have can be anything but a combination of other people’s ideas.
All we can do is help ideas have sex and see what they produce.
Once we accept that, everything can move faster.
Once we accept that, everyone is free to have more ideas.
Without the desperate constipation of getting stuck in striving for the illusion of originality.
We’ve long since passed the point where anyone can do anything from scratch.
Every idea builds on something else.
Every idea adds to something else.
To create a new idea, two existing ideas have to have sex.
Which then creates an idea in its own right.
Which can then have sex with other ideas.
We cannot create ideas on our own, from nothing.
Anymore than we can create a human being on our own, from nothing.

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