Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

20th May 2020 | Reading time: 10 min
By Rakesh Singh

On the shoulders of giants
Source: Google


oers and thinkers from Leonardo to Shakespeare and Newton to Jobs literally 'stole' their inspiration from the legends that existed long before them. Here's how you can steal your inspiration from them.

"If I have seen further," wrote Newton in a letter to his fellow scientist Robert Hooke, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." 'Newton was so right about so many things that it seems so ungenerous to dwell on where he was wrong', wrote Janna Levin in her magnificent book How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. Although, the metaphor he used wasn't even entirely his own. The entire phrase can be traced back to around twelfth century, when a theologian and author John of Salisbury wrote that philosopher Bernard of Chartres compared people to dwarfs perched on the shoulder of giants and said that we see farther than our predecessor not because we have keener vision or great height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

It may seem very easy to look at the geniuses like Newton and imagine their ideas and work a complete product of their mind, like they spun it entirely from their own thoughts. But that's rarely the case.

Innovative and creative ideas have to come from somewhere else. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work may appear to one but if you dig a little deeper you would find that they always stood on someone else's shoulder. They stole the ideas from the giants who lived before them and lead their work to great heights. With each step, they allowed themselves to look a little further than others and always believed in the knowledge that future generation, in turn, perch on their shoulders. Standing on the shoulders of giants is necessary for invention, creativity and development of something and its embracement never diminishes the value of your work at any moment.

You know, there are giants in every possible field and don't be intimated by them because they offers us a complete brand new and exciting perspective to look at their piece of work. As, Jim Jarmusch, a movie director had openly advised, "Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.'"

How Steve Jobs got his ideas?

We have programmed ourselves to avoid using ideas, thoughts, products or any kind of data created by someone else and choose to come up with our own, even if it's expensive and time consuming. When we don't give credit to what came before and refuse to learn from history, we hold ourselves back. After all, if you look closely, you would find that most of brilliant ideas are still the oldest ones. Plotting a new solution for a problem looks more sexy and exciting rather than using someone else's ideas. But they might have flaw in their thought process because developing new approach to a solution may lead you straight to another problem. People may feel strongly confident in developing their own answer. I mean who likes to be getting told by someone what and what not do, even if that person is better than they are? Don't you want to be known as a genius who figured it out and re-invented the wheel or anything? Its highly unlikely that you don't.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

~ Steve Jobs

We are aware of all the contribution from biggest to smallest one ever made in technology by Steve Jobs. Right? I mean the creation of their iPhones and iPods with elegant desings and features it comes with. In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman have traced back the path that led to the development of iphones and ipods and track down the giants upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs perched on. We often extol him as a revolutionary person (and he really was) who completely changed the way we use technology today. Those who were there around year 2007 knew that the first release of the iphone created a buzz all over the world for quite a long period of time. But the actual truth is even more messier than what we know.

World's first 'touch sensor' appeared almost a century before iphone came in and was developed by E.A Johnson at Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, UK, for air traffic control around 1965-1967 and filed a patent in 1975. Around the same time The University of Illinois was developing touch sensors for students. In 1980s, the manufacturing company HP (Hewlett-Packard) introduced its first home computer HP-150 with touch screen making it the first touch sensor device which detected finger movements. The year 1990s, launched the smartphones and handheld devices with touch screen technology. In year 1993, Apple released the Newton PDA packed that allowed free-handwriting recognition mode. Soon after Apple, IBM revealed its first smartphone called Simon and it was equipped with features like calendar, notepad, fax machine and touch screen interface that allowed users to dial phone numbers.

However, those earlier smartphone devices were quite frustrating to use and had limited functionality, often short battery life and almost with no use for common people. As the 'touch screen' technology were in constant development, it laid down the ground framework for the addictive glowing screens which were to be launched worldwide in 2007, and made Apple 'king of smartphones', the iPhone, nothing but the touch screen technology.

The same thing happened with iPod. The iPod was build upon the work of Krane Kramer who took the inspiration from a walkman built by Sony. Krane designed a small and portable version of Sony's walkman and called it 'IXI' in 1970s that looked somewhat similar to that of first iPod designed by Apple. But it arrived too soon in the market to exist and as Kramer lacked the marketing strategy to create one. So he dropped his idea.

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of many known and unknown engineers, developers, students, scientists, artists who dedicated their life to build the technology for people. Brandt and Eagleman says that “human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries.”

Shakespeare and his ideas

Not all, but most of the Shakespeare's play and sonnets draw heavily upon prior works. For instance, Hamlet was inspired from Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work on Danish history written by Saxo Grammaticus consisting of sixteen latin books. Although, it is doubtful that if Shakespeare had access to the original source. Also, the plight of Prince Amleth (which is made out of word 'Hamlet' by interchanging the letters) involves similar storyline. Moreover, many parts from Antony and Cleopatra are verbatim from Plutarch's Life of Mark Anthony. Additionally, Arthur Brooke's of 1562 poem called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was a strong framework for the worldly popular love story of Romeo and Juliet. But Shakespeare was gifted something else. He had a keen sense of where, how and when to rewrite, restructure and manipulate the original script creating an emotion and suspense accordingly for the audience. The key thing is that he saw far further than those who wrote before him and finally ushered and evolved the era of English language.

But the story of plagiarism does not seem to stop on him. Of course, Newton, Jobs and Shakespeare found a shoulder to learn and stand upon. From many sources Facebook was presumed to have built on a prior concept 'Friendster' and John Lennon drew his art and skill in singing from diverse musicians of the past.

The Adjacent Possible

Why is it that people can't come up with their own ideas and even if they come up with a brilliant ideas but don't earn profit from it? Well, the answer lies behind what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls 'the adjacent possible' and its not difficult to understand. In simple terms, every new ideas opens up a door of possibilities for others. Any new idea or work for Newton, Jobs or Shakespeare was only possible because they perched on the shoulders of a previous giant who unlocked the door of possibilities and made their work possible. From there on, they streched and expanded the realms of limited possibilities. Whether its art, science or technology, the advancement is only possible if someone has already laid down foundation or ground framework for it. As Shakespeare said, "nothing will come out of nothing." Newton took science to a great heights because of the preliminary discoveries that had been already made by others. Shakespeare could write his plays and poems because legends before him laid the structure and language that shaped his tools. Similarly, Jobs was able to built Apple out of detritus only because of prior devices and technological advances.

But if you fall into the trap that every possible and unique ideas has already been discovered; then without a doubt you are very very wrong. Every existing tech companies or otherwise exists because they filled up an information-gap. To do so, you need to ask several questions to yourself like what opportunities can I spot that others couldn't? What possible doors can I open for others? Where can I apply the 'adjacent possible'? A good idea never restricts possibilities but rather opens them.

As the day keeps dissolving in time, the giants will continue getting bigger and stronger and more willing to let us climb onto their shoulders. You are all surrounded by their knowledge in one form or other such as books, blog posts, TED Talks, podcasts, open-source softwares, academic papers and interviews. Whatever the things we do enables us to find a suitable giants in the respective area and see what can be learned from them.

At the end of the day, this is the only process of how human knowledge compound and progress allowing dwarfs to see a little bit further.

Tagged: Everyday LearningThinkingCreativity

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