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May 12, 2008


Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker idyllically fuses discovery with invention in his thematic presentation of a strawman: "In The Air: Who says big ideas are rare?" The ostensible topic is that discoveries and inventions are often made contemporaneously by multiple people. However droll and obvious the observation may be, Gladwell spins his yarn in posh New Yorker fashion.

A sip of the wine:

In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples, he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.

Merton's observation about scientific geniuses is clearly not true of artistic geniuses, however. You can't pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart's Requiem. You can't put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse's "La Danse." A work of artistic genius is singular, and all the arguments over calculus, the accusations back and forth between the Bell and the Gray camps, and our persistent inability to come to terms with the existence of multiples are the result of our misplaced desire to impose the paradigm of artistic invention on a world where it doesn't belong. Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner's desk a few hours before Gray's. The first kind of creation was sui generis; the second could be re-created in a warehouse outside Seattle.

This is a confusing distinction, because we use the same words to describe both kinds of inventors, and the brilliant scientist is every bit as dazzling in person as the brilliant playwright.

There are trends in both the technical and non-technical arts.

Technology comes to cusps, where one or more inventors cross chasm to the shores of solution. That more than one similarly talented and disciplined inventor beach nearby is merely logical.

Artists often exist in a community, at least by virtue of appreciation. Styles of expression are often both individual and derivative, as with invention. Nothing odd that more than one artistic craftsman may mine the same quarry coincidentally.

But similar contemporaneous efforts in no way detract from the fact that artistic accomplishment, technical or otherwise, is the pinnacle of human endeavor, both rare and precious in view of collective incompetence. These progressions deserve celebration as peak outputs by their creators, and rewarding experiences by their audience.

Individuals who consistently create high art are quite rare, in view of the collective (i.e., the masses).

Discovery is all the more stunning because it was always within the field of view, its happening earlier lacking only someone's perception and conceptualization, qualities we presume in humanity that are more proven by their absence than existence.

Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit."

Posted by Patent Hawk at May 12, 2008 3:45 PM | Patents In Business


I agree Patent Hawk. Artists and inventors have more in common that Gladwell gives credit towards the end of his article.

It would be great if someone from the Interference bar could chime in here. The point is that although several groups might reduce to practice a similar invention, the richness of detailed fact often reveals subtle differences in the intricacy of what has been done of the different groups.

Posted by: Michael Martin at May 12, 2008 4:56 PM

I enjoyed the blurb from Gladwell. However, Gladwell's comment that artists in the humanities create sui generis is a bit disingenuous, because Shakespeare and other artsists in the humanities build on the works of others just as artists in the technological areas do. But, perhaps this skew is because Gladwell has a penchant for the pen himself.

Posted by: kunzen at May 12, 2008 9:52 PM