Plagiarism makes people less creative

Experts copy creatively

Basically we are all plagiarists. Imitation is one of the oldest cultural techniques, and its contemporary form of expression is called "copy and paste".

From Eduard Kaeser

One of the many characterizations in which humans try to distinguish themselves from animals in a self-flattering way, highlights them as homo faber. One remembers the famous definition of Benjamin Franklin, who described man as the animal that fabricates tools. Although this definition is enough for people to distinguish themselves in the animal kingdom, it is now disputed by zoologists and in any case only describes a very small part of our species. The majority do not invent, but rather imitate others. Franklin would like to correct that humans are much more like the animal that copies tools. Incidentally, this applies not only to tools, but to all products, especially spiritual ones.

Everyone's arrowhead

According to the British biologist Mark Pagel, evolution has favored the copyists among us, not the innovators. Certainly there were tinkerers among our early human ancestors who racked their brains over how to make a more effective arrowhead. But no sooner was the invention in use than others tried to reproduce it. This is called «social learning». In terms of evolution, it has catapulted us away from other species into the sphere of culture.

If one spins the idea a little further, one could say that technical progress has made copying a “normal” cultural technique. We live in the age of copying: the internet not only makes everything that others think, say and do accessible almost instantly, it also makes it seductively easy to copy and copy what others think, say and do. This inevitably brings back memories of recently incriminated practices in literature and science. Could one turn this into an approval? Copying, folks, isn't all that disreputable; we are copyists by nature!

Incidentally, one can always summon the company of very great people apologetically. Thomas Mann, for example, described himself as a “higher copyist”. Psychology even has a nice technical term: "cryptomnesia" - unconscious appropriation of someone else's intellectual property that the user later considers to be his own contribution. Not to forget the saying of the American author Wilson Mizner: "If you copy from one author, it is plagiarism - if you copy from two, it is science."

New technologies change old cultural techniques. Writing, for example, as a time-adapted definition could read, means operating two computer keys in a digital context: "copy" plus "paste". «A keyboard shortcut on the computer has created a new culture that shapes us all. And we shape them, ”writes Anaïs Hostettler, editor of the relevant body“ Copy Paste Reality ”. In the ears of the younger generation - very different from those of the older generation - there are hardly any cynical overtones. There's a cooler relationship with copying.

Ken Goldsmith, for example, author and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, recently called plagiarism in the digital age "repurposing" - repurposing and recycling. His main argument: There is so much text on the Internet, why add new ones? The actual work does not lie in the production of new text, but in the sorting, filtering and recombining of retrievable text material, a type of recycling.

Goldsmith teaches a subject called "Uncreative Writing". "Students are punished for any trace of originality and creativity," he writes, "but they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, the reorganization of academic papers, pieced together writing, sampling, looting, stealing. Unsurprisingly, they are thriving. Suddenly what they have secretly become experts in, sees itself brought to light and reinterpreted in the safe environment of the class as something responsible instead of reckless. "

Let's not kid ourselves: Most students write texts this way today, even if they are clandestine. Why shouldn't we just accept this as an existing digital media-sponsored practice and try to make the most of it? This may result in new forms of creative handling of texts, a new way of writing.

Such techniques have long been common practice in painting and music. Beat writers like William S. Burroughs introduced them to literature in the 1950s. In 2007, the American writer Jonathan Lethem published an essay with a tongue-in-cheek irony that deals with the subject of “plagiarism” and consists of nothing but plagiarism. To be more precise: it is cut up from nothing but disclosed, slightly revised quote fragments. The text clearly shows a quality sui generis, that is, not of a skill in the conventional literary sense, but of a skill in creative copying, so to speak.

Of course, this is not an apology for fraud and intellectual theft. When technology makes copying easier than ever today, the question of originality in the digital context simply has to be asked anew. First of all, we should part with the view that the introduction of new cultural techniques is always about an either / or.

The beauty of the copied text

A revaluation of copying would be all the more popular as the copy was and is not always and everywhere considered inferior. In Asia it ranks higher than in the west. Which, among other things, has to do with the fact that the appreciation of cultural practices such as painting, culinary arts or sports is not measured so much by their originality as by their traditionality. They are preserved by consciously imitating them, copying them.

Even the medieval practice of monastic scriptoria in Europe attached great importance to copying. The handwritten reproduction of manuscripts promotes the culture of learning, one reads in Johannes Trithemius in his "Praise of the scribes": Monks should continue copying by hand despite the printing press, because it keeps the idle hands busy, too diligent, humble and I encourage deeper knowledge of the font and also uphold the beauty, purity and individuality of the copied text compared to the flawedness of the printed product.

Redefine originality

The contrast between the original and the copy is based on the renaissance idea of ​​the individual genius who creates on its own - an idea that subsequently developed into a fighting instrument in the competition of creativity. With the production conditions dictated by the Internet, this claim is becoming obsolete. "The more immaterial an original is, the more often the copyright will be crushed between the laborious replication line by line and the immediate appropriation by electronic means," writes the cultural scientist Hillel Schwartz.

But that doesn't mean that a single point falls from the crown of originality. To say goodbye to the idea of ​​this kind of authorship means at most introducing a gradual difference: more or less original - or better: more or less originally copied. Collecting, copying, remixing: "Productive reference culture" is already being called a pretty high-handed thing.

If culture consists to a large extent of genealogies of what is copied, listened to, and copied, and these genealogies find their almost immeasurable intertextual expansion in the endless ramifications of the network, the decisive criterion for originality and creativity is in fact not creation out of nothing, but creating from the links. The decisive factor happens in the spark between the hitherto unconnected.

Fantasy, imagination and the gift of combination are individual abilities. They can be reinforced by the network, not replaced. The fuss that is made about the opportunities for participation and social learning is basically a lot of ado about the old banality: We learn from one another by copying things from others. Man is the animal that copies. At every stage of technical development it appears in a new version - currently: as Homo copians 2.0.

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