Monday, April 2, 2018


Once we admit that we are, to a great extent, queue-ers-up in an existential queue, learning to be what others already are, waiting to be initiated, then we can begin to have a purchase on our existence.  Without this admission, we are deceiving ourselves about our own originality. Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash

One of the most underestimated ways to develop is simple copying.  Which is strange, because humans are very good at copying.  Our genetic foundation is based upon an ability, in principle, to replicate large chunks of our functioning between generations.  And our cultures are founded on rituals and processes which replicate, in principle, traditions, thereby passing them on.

You'll notice I said 'in principle' when talking about human replication.  In actual fact, no replication is perfect.  Nevertheless, we are, more than we know, biological and cultural photocopiers, perpetuating ways of life and being easily and naturally.

Why do I describe copying as an underestimated skill?  Well, centres of learning, for instance, often pride themselves on being centres of critical thinking.  But many qualifications can be obtained simply by copying of the factual and cultural practices of the institution awarding them.  At worst, we have a hypocritical situation where schools and universities say that they are encouraging creativity and critical thought; but in practice they reward replication of what they expect to see.

So copying is underestimated in that we pretend it has little role; we kind of ignore it, as though it is not worth thinking about.  Instead, we celebrate how innovative we are being, how new, how groundbreaking... while continuing, in practice, to replicate.

You might notice an ambivalence in this article about copying.  On the one hand, I seem to be saying it is a good thing, that we cannot do without it.  On the other, though, I seem to be suggesting it is a hidden sin, a symptom of hypocrisy.

I guess I feel that it is both.  On the one hand, it is a foundation of art, craft and science.  Tradition enables the building of knowledge bases which can inform the education of students, who can then get a head start, incorporating into their practice generations of awareness without having to suffer for it.  And replicability enables the building of scientific libraries, predictive in nature, offering models of being which can be assented to because consistently and methodically attained.

On the other hand, there comes a time when simple replication feeds those who replicate, but creates nothing new.  If institutions reward replication too much, they will become blind to the new.  Members of those institutions will have to escape in order to create.  Hence, I suppose, dissidence, where citizens move from the trammels of a self-replicating culture, towards one which offers more breathing space.

When young, we are, in a sense, built to investigate... but also to copy rapaciously.  For instance, we passionately seek out first experiences - we want to know what new sensations feel like, what new places have to offer, what happens to things when we drop them, throw them, put them in our mouth.  Thus investigation is embedded in our being from the start.

But, allied to this, and in some ways keeping us safe, is a complementary urge to copy.  We feel safe when we do what others are doing.  We compare, and feel it acutely when we feel too different; we often seek to buy what others buy, to join the groups that others join.

So I am certainly not suggesting that copying is inherently bad.  We need it in order not only to assimilate others' practices, but to extend and communicate any experience by association.  The replication of grammatical rules and understood vocabulary enables language to bear meaningful discussion.  Without it, we would have to reinvent the world every day; we would have the cultural equivalent of Alzheimer's.

However.  And it is a big however.  We need, I think, to be more open about what copying we are asking for.  Enough of education which pretends to be high-proportion critical thinking, but is in fact high-proportion regurgitation.  Let's be honest.  Let's say clearly 'Yes, much of our education is in fact a practice which rewards the replication of a set knowledge base.'  Let's not pretend to be more creative than we are.

And when we vote, let's be aware how much we are copying the cultural practices of our friends, or our heroes.  Let's not pretend that we have thought our way, personally, to our own views about everything.

The public and media have reacted with something approaching horror to revelations that some companies make it their business to manipulate our views, and control the knowledge we access.  Well, if we are copying beings, what do we expect?  If we pretend we live in a critical nirvana, where our thoughts are pure and individually-made, then yes, we will react with horror to the thought that our perfection might be tainted.  However, if we admit that our whole lives are soaked in copying; that we copied our language, our politics, our style, our material existences, from others, with only limited modification by us... if we admit this, then we have a chance of better allowing for companies that manipulate.

The social media debate just makes more obvious something that happens all the time: we copy others.  A large part of us is built to swallow what people say wholesale.  That's why and how we can enter the world of a film or a book - we are built that way.  Even Stockholm syndrome is not a surprise when we think about it this way - we are so easily manipulated because we are constantly looking for world-views to assimilate and swallow pretty much whole.

I have focused on copying.  But there are plenty of other ways of thinking.  In particular, there is critical thinking, in which we learn to take apart, and stand at a distance from, what we see.  There is also strategic thinking, in which we begin to choose exactly what we copy, and how.

But let's, at first, start where we are: the human race is a race of flagrant copiers, swallowing pretty much whole each other's ways of life, words, languages, styles, practices.  Let's stop pretending we are so original.

Once we admit that we are, to a great extent, queue-ers-up in an existential queue, learning to be what others already are, waiting to be initiated, then we can begin to have a purchase on our existence.  Without this admission, we are deceiving ourselves about our own originality.

All this is not to say originality and creativity do not exist.  But I am arguing that, unless we stop and realise exactly how much we are uncreative and unoriginal... unless we do that every day... then we will not begin to be truly original and creative.  We will simply think we are, and go about regurgitating the same things, applauded by those who think the same things, not realising that we are just repeating, repeating.

When was the last time you rewarded someone for doing something different?  Honestly, are you more likely to reward your friends if they take you into new territory, or if they simply reassure you about a copied truth you don't want to let go of.

I remember a tutor once telling her class to think critically at all costs.  I remember that same tutor, the following week, telling a student that their critical thinking was simply resistance to the traditional truth.  You can't have it both ways.

I'm not suggesting we do anything differently.  Only that, perhaps, we could become more aware of exactly how much of a role copying plays, even in adult life.  Then we might better understand group-think, politics, social media, and many other aspects of behaviour.  In my psychology training, copying was, as I see it, vastly underplayed.  It was as though the tutors and textbooks were ashamed that things could be that simple.  After all, it's creativity that makes us human... isn't it?  I wonder.  I really wonder.

Humans are natural copiers.  But we pretend we are not.  We pretend that we have reasons for everything we do, when often we have simply copied what others do.  Recent interactions between politics and social media have presented us with a frightening truth about how manipulable we are.  And yet we can't quite accept that this is how we function.  Perhaps we should be more honest with ourselves, and admit that most of our lives are copied.  Perhaps, only then, can we engage our critical and strategic brains effectively.  First, we need to realise exactly how far our urge to copy extends.

So I challenge you.  I say you are not original.  And if you think you are... how are you going to prove me wrong?