The ideas episode, the third installment of New York-based filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything Is a Remix” project is out (via Jason Kottke) and everyone in and around the New York tech scene should watch. Using the development of the personal computer as an example, Mr. Ferguson talks about how innovations in technology come about after years of slow building, followed by imitation and heavy “borrowing” from other inventors–maybe mixed with new ideas, maybe not.
This explains why New York tech companies are emerging–all the hardcore engineering technology of smart phones, APIs and cheap cloud hosting now exists, so the designers and businessmen who have traditionally thrived in New York are perfectly positioned to remix and combine these technologies into Foursquares and Tumblrs, Touts and Speakergrams, GroupMes and Joinables, and so on.
The video also explains the groupthink that seems to occur when a number of start-ups have the same idea at the same time. The prevailing theory is that this is caused by investors saying “me too,” seeking out substitute companies when the one they first heard about becomes oversubscribed, and that’s part of it. But the major reason that similar start-ups spring up at the same time is because the necessary conditions–including pre-existing technologies–are in place. Twilio and other text and voice support for apps gave rise to the group messaging wave; Facebook and the recession laid the groundwork for Groupon and its ilk.
“Whenever there’s a major breakthrough, there’s usually others on the same path. Maybe a bit behind, maybe not behind at all,” the narrator says, citing the discoveries of calculus, the theory of evolution and the telephone, which were all independently discovered at about the same time. “We call this ‘multiple discovery,’ the same innovation emerging from different places. Science and innovation is riddled with it… We’re all building with the same materials. Sometimes by coincidence we get similar results, but sometimes innovation just seems inevitable.”
And oh yeah, this is also why we need to abolish software patents.