Wednesday, September 19, 2012

WHY something is better than the original

I wrote something in my Empoprise-MU music blog last August, with the intention of writing a follow-up to the original post. Well, I'm finally getting around to the follow-up.

The initial post was, not surprisingly, music-related. I mentioned various musical works that were based upon earlier works - the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA," George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," ELO's "Roll Over Beethoven," Kanye West's "Stronger," and Kelly Osbourne's "One Word" - and then advanced the following statement:

But there's one thing that unites all of these new versions of old songs. In my opinion, these new versions are better than the originals. Vocally, the Beach Boys blew Chuck Berry out of the water, and the instrumentation was more inventive. And while I have personal problems (religious issues) with Harrison's lyrics, I love his guitar work from that period. "Roll Over Beethoven" has been recorded in many different versions, but the one from the Electric Light Orchestra stands out as a successful attempt to marry classical and rock music. And Kanye (while I again have issues with some of the lyrics) is a much better singer than the Dafts, and again he provides better instrumentation.

Now you may disagree with my particular musical tastes, but I'm sure that you can think of examples in which an artist takes an original work and improves on the original.

Some would think that this is not possible, and that the original artist (say, Bob Dylan with "Knocking on Heaven's Door") had all of the inspiration, genius, and talent, while the subsequent artist (say, Guns 'N Roses) had none of the above.

But I maintain that this is entirely possible - and expected.

Why? Because the second artist who comes along doesn't have to do any of the heavy lifting. Much of the work was done by the first artist, freeing the second artist to apply his or her own creativity to the work. For example, Brian Wilson didn't have to worry about coming up with a melody - Chuck Berry had already done that - and he could therefore pay attention to the lyrics.

This same principle applies in business, which is why I'm writing about it here.

This may surprise some, but Bill Gates did not invent windowed operating systems. This may surprise a few more, but Steve Jobs didn't invent them either. And no, Xerox PARC didn't invent them either. But each of these people built upon the ideas of their predecessors, and I'm sure that Vannevar Bush built upon the ideas of his predecessors when he wrote this in 1945:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

- Vannevar Bush; As We May Think; Atlantic Monthly; July 1945.

But Doug Engelbart built upon Bush's work, and Alan Kay and others built upon Engelbart's work, and Jef Raskin (remember him?) and others built upon Xerox PARC's work, and Bill Gates saw the Apple stuff at some point, and so forth.

As I write this, I am looking at a screen with a number of boxes with text in them. These buttons have words like "Publish," "Save," "Preview," and "Close." There are also other buttons visible to me; some have single letters such as "B" and "I," while others have pictures of things such as a flag or a battery with a power plug next to it. The screen that I am viewing in 2012 is not in any way what Vannevar Bush envisioned in 1945, but each of the people who followed Bush built upon that foundation and were therefore freed to make other improvements.

And if you're a purist who argues that the original inventor is best and that the followers are untalented copycats, then I encourage you to throw away your computer (or your phone) and buy a really large desk with translucent screens that is able to manage your records (78 or 45). Enjoy.
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