Introduction to Thief
“The English, The English, The English are best” - Flanders and Swann
The English are a curious breed. Two millennia ago, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius encouraged readers of his stoical meditations on life and leadership to remember their special status in the universe as Roman Citizens. The English still have a very similar view of themselves. Whether it’s the Old Etonian in a Notting Hill wine bar or the bedraggled England football fan who complains that “other countries don’t understand our drinking culture” there’s something about being English that thrives on a sense of superiority over others.
As a Welshman, born and bred, it’s not hard for me to acknowledge the many things of which the English are rightly proud (teaching the world sports and games that they can beat the English at is one such gift) and undoubtedly, English culture and the ideas of the English upper classes and creative gurus set the standard in many walks of life, in music, fashion and design, in all four corners of the globe. Despite - or perhaps because of - the nation’s refusal to learn to speak the language of other countries in anything but the most perfunctory manner.
Which always makes me smile because I think the greatest achievement of the English is their language. Although it is a mongrel mix of North European, Scandinavian and Latin tribal tongues, it has become truly global. There are more than 335 million native speakers and many more with a passing acquaintance. It spreads like wildfire, making pidgin and creole versions wherever it goes. English is continually sneaking into other cultures and languages (despite the best efforts of our friends in the Academy Francaise who fight a sterling battle to keep anglophones out of France - a PC is an “ordinateur”? Really?). Say cheese
and English only gets more popular. What do you say when someone wants you to smile into a camera? Each nation used to have their own word or phrase to crack facial features into a smile-like shape. In France, photographers used to call out marmoset (“ouistiti”); in Bulgaria, cabbage (“zele”); in Denmark, orange (“appelsin”); in much of latin America, whiskey (yesiree). More and more, unfortunately, the English language options of “cheese” or the prosaic “smile” are catching on.
Which gives us a clue as to how English became so popular - it is easy to speak a few words, to make a “pidgin” version, such as those that have emerged wherever dark corners the English and their fellow anglophones have traipsed. English is easy to copy. Even Yoda a form of the mother tongue speaking does.
But English is a copycat tongue in another sense: it readily embraces the structures and forms of other languages. For example, the continuous tense (“I’m doing this…”) is a relic of Celtic languages, unknown in other modern North European tongues. Aspects of its grammar and syntax have roots in German, Norse and North European languages that our Dark Age visitors brought with them. Significantly, it also bears the marks of more recent invaders like the French (well, the Norman Conquest wasn’t that recent but you get the point). Many of our fancy words - like the words for law, politics, meat and cooking - are French in origin.
English continues to borrow from other languages. The English dictionary - more than any of its European equivalents - contains so many foreign words, most of which native speakers imagine are English. Cookie from the modern Dutch; ketchup from Cantonese and tea from Hokkein Chinese; avatar from Sanskirt; alcohol, alcove and admiral from Arabic; (good old) Blighty and bungalow from Hindi and Urdu; dollar and robot from Czech; cargo and canoe from Spanish; camouflage and casserole from the French; flannel, lech and dad are all from the Welsh.
The success of the English language then is mostly down to copying. It’s not a language that requires a linguistic police force to keep it pure (like the French Academy); of course, there are sticklers for spelling and grammar obsessives, as for all languages, but for the majority of speakers, the point about English is that it flexes.
Copy Copy Copy
We don’t tend to think about copying as a good thing, let alone a “superpower”. In our culture it’s seen as unfair, unnecessary and even slightly unethical to use other people’s ideas.
To a self-identifying creative (with a capital “C”) person, admitting to copying is a critical sign of weakness; it undermines the reputation of the self-styled innovator. Sometimes we can get away with it by talking about our “inspiration” or about the (heartfelt) tribute (“homage”, another fancy French word) our work pays to what inspired it. But few of us feel comfortable admitting to copying: we praise originality and novelty, not familiarity and the well-trodden. But copying is a superpower. If the explosion of behavioural cognitive science in the last decade has taught us one thing it’s that copying - or “social learning” to use the polite academic euphemism - is one of humanity’s greatest gifts as a species. We are “homo mimicus” the copying rather than the wise or thinking (“sapiens”) ape. It starts almost from the moment we’re born (42 minutes post-partum, to be precise) and we spend the rest of our lives harnessing the ability to outsource our thinking to those around us. It shapes the names we give our children, our clothes, where we live, the music we listen to and where we go on vacation. It affects the products we buy and the attitudes we have to them and to each other. Even our ideas about what makes someone attractive or what a fair share looks like are borrowed from other people - they are not, as you might have assumed, “fixed” in our biological selves.
Copying is an efficient use of human minds: without copying each of us would need much more information storage capacity - we’d have to carry around so much more information in our individual heads. And, we’d have to think much harder, working from first principles every time a new challenge emerges (like getting dressed or deciding what’s good and what’s bad to eat). You’d have to do the math. Each and every time. Why bother, when you can outsource the load?
Being human means you never need to be on your own: you stand surrounded by all of humanity and have access to many more people’s experience and know-how than you will ever meet. Some of this is encoded in what we call “culture” - the shared assumptions and short-cuts that we use to navigate a social world together with the people we meet; some if it is the accessible through the connective technology of the age, in social media and the internet as a whole.
The point is this one of us starts alone; none of us has to do the math.
This is what all the great innovators and creative minds acknowledge (whatever else they tell their fans): Picasso famously observed that while talent copies, genius steals. TS Eliot insisted that the quality of a poet isn’t determined by if, but how, they copy (and what they do with the source of copying).
James Watt - the man my schoolbooks called the “Father of the Industrial Revolution” didn’t invent the steam engine; he improved Newcomen’s 50 year old design by adding an external condenser. James Dyson didn’t invent the vacuum cleaner, he merely improved it. Steve Jobs and his team at Apple Corp didn’t “invent” the desktop, the laptop, the tablet, the mobile phone or mobile music players. They took other peoples’ ideas and did them better (or at least simpler).
David Bowie, probably the most influential figure in rock music for the last three decades, freely admitted to stealing from others - his breakthrough Ziggy Stardust was based on his reading of Burroughs’ Wild Boys, Diamond Dogs on Orwell’s 1984, his Berlin Trilogy on the disturbing throb of Krautrock. Even his creative techniques were borrowed from others - cut-up lyrics from Burroughs and co, calculated dislocation from Brian Eno and so on: “the only art I’m interested is art I can steal”.
For Good or otherwise…
Of course, you can use this superpower for good. Or, for ill. Up to you. You can make new and interesting things, things that solve problems, by using the stuff that (as artist Grayson Perry observes) is just lying around.
Or, you can steal other people’s ideas and re-present them as your own (that’s what copyright laws are for).
The choice is yours.
Unsurprisingly, “bad faith” copying often happens when money is in play. That’s why the music industry is awash with copyright lawyers and start-up pitches are full of spurious claims to exclusive IP and why business like Apple guard their IP so tightly (even why Chinese “shanzai” copycat manufacturers are such a headache).
Sometimes status makes bad copying the thing. Hence the brouhaha about the third Mrs Trump’s “recycling” of Michelle Obama’s words to the Republican Conference or Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s challenge to VP candidate Dan Quayle in 1988, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”.
Sometimes of course the copying is bad but unintentional (or at least, unconscious). George Harrisson ended up paying a fortune to the publishers of Johnny Mack’s He’s So Fine because his strumalong hippy tune, My Sweet Lord was judged to be an unconscious copy of the song, made famous by The Chiffons.
It’s up to you how you use it.
Learn to code or learn to copy
There’s a popular mantra in many businesses today that the central skill of the 21st must be the ability to code. I’ve myself learned a lot from doing the basics.
However, for my money it’s far more important to learn how to copy (as it happens, in learning the basics of coding you quickly discover that it’s better to use other people’s well-tested code than writer everything yourself from scratch).
Copying - borrowing - thieving - whatever you call it - is the superpower you’ve got to get to grips with now. The sooner you do, the better and faster you’ll be able to solve the problems in front of you, the better and the more voluminous the ideas you’ll create and the more fun you’ll have. Better Fresher Faster and More Fun (as Laura Jordan Bambach and I described it in our keynote at Cannes Innovation Lions 2016).
What follows are three pieces exploring this superpower from different angles:
Steal what you can.