Copy this, baby: Nothing’s unique in the Age of Google

Who pays the price when information is free? The new crisis of originality

A few years ago, I found myself on the giant playground known as the Google “campus” in Mountain View, Calif., speaking to a small group of Google employees about, among other things, originality. I tried to make what I thought was a pretty unoriginal point.

The culture, I suggested, rewarded successful copying and ignored or even denounced originality. Some examples: If a talking cat gets a million page views on YouTube, then within days there will be a million talking cats, dogs, ferrets, etc.; American Idol contestants are always imitating a famous singer’s style; the knowing ironies of the mash-up are more appealing to its audience than what is being mashed up. Yet at the same time, the Internet delights in tearing down figures who come to prominence on the basis of some original achievement. Lady Gaga has become renowned for imitating Madonna, but if Madonna ever got caught texting something insulting about Lady Gaga, heaven help her.

After my talk, a few people who had been in the audience came up to me and began to press me on the issue of originality. One of them asked me bluntly: “What is so great about being original?” I was about to launch with confidence, not to say smugness, into some mildly condescending explanation of originality when I realized that, in fact, I had nothing to say. The inestimable value of originality was just one of those fundamentals I had never questioned. I stood there, hemming and hawing, desperate for something to offer. “Don’t you think it’s important,” I ventured, “to … er … well … to … hmmm … march to the beat of a different drummer?” There it was—in the defense of originality, I had uttered one of the most celebrated bromides in the history of banality. But the response of one of the Googlians was even more astounding. “That’s a great line,” he said, without the slightest irony.

We are now in the middle of a crisis of originality, and partly this is due to the raging dogs of information that Google has unleashed. We are so inundated by what has been written and said, and by what was written and said just seconds ago, that it is becoming impossible to sort out who said what first. Not only that, but as the idea of intellectual property—of copyright—has been thrown out the window, the notion that thoughts are duplicable commodities has become more widespread. If Google can reprint articles from newspapers and magazines without permission, then why shouldn’t students copy passages verbatim from online reference sources such as Wikipedia (it’s called “content scraping”) without attribution? And if all information is now free, and if search engines lump all forms of knowledge together under the rubric of “information,” then isn’t the writer who copies from the published work of another writer simply exercising his right to drink from the public trough? As the definition of originality implodes in the capitalist anti-capitalist chaos of the Internet, instances of plagiarism multiply. Plagiarism is the Internet’s neurosis.

Plagiarism has become to journalism what sex scandals are to politics. Just as there are pods of journalists looking to catch public officials with their pants down, there are pods of ordinary citizens looking to catch journalists with their scanners working overtime. Even editors have become super-vigilant about ensuring the originality of their writers’ ideas. Of course, there was always the nightmare editor who would send you 48 books on the subject you had just been assigned to write about (“Thought this might help”), as opposed to the heaven-sent editor who brushed off your apprehension that someone had just published an essay on your theme: “Don’t worry, you’ll do it in your inimitable style.” But now some editors Google your suggestions to death to make sure that no one has ever touched on what you want to say. “Sorry about this, but we’re going to have to take out the bit about laziness. Plato said something similar in The Republic.” As journalism begins more and more to doubt its purpose, it becomes other things, and one of the things it is becoming is another branch of academia, as editors and general readers mentally annotate everything they read.

Yet we are equally paranoid about the possibility that someone has passed off fiction as fact. Some years ago, an editor at a magazine I regularly wrote for called me up to check on some facts in a piece I had just written. “You say here,” he queried, “that you were standing on a corner in midtown and thinking that the Flatiron building was designed to be seen in the snow. Now, are you sure that you were really thinking that?” No, I’m not sure; shall we try hypnosis? Nevertheless, I sympathized with his anxiety. The plagiarist and the fabricator suddenly lose the distinct shape they had acquired as people. We no longer know them. They are not what we thought they were. They sink back into anonymity before our very eyes.

You might even say that e-readers such as the Kindle have a similar anonymous-making effect. The unique appearance of a book—one’s idea of Dostoyevsky is indistinguishable from that tattered Penguin copy of Dostoyevsky—dissolves on the pearl-gray screen, against whose background the words of John Donne resemble the words of J.D. Salinger. The aesthetic sameness of our expanding electronic universe makes us ever more comfortable with the idea that originality is a romantic chimera.

Still, we are caught between the horror of plagiarism and, with our love of reality TV and participatory culture, a sneaking revulsion against originality. Maybe the romantic notion of originality that we have inherited and that is so out of sync with our lives now is why originality is so vulnerable in the first place. Maybe no one is springing to originality’s defense because the very idea of it sounds so 19th century. In our moment of pretension to democratic openness and transparency, it sounds elitist, even authoritarian. Think of originality, and you think of Michelangelo, Beethoven, Van Gogh; you think of tortured, socially unassimilable geniuses. But this is the age of Facebook’s homogenous format for friendship, not of tortured, socially unassimilable geniuses. Wasn’t his grotesque parody of the artistic genius what made Michael Jackson so transfixing? His semi-campy deconstruction of the romanticism of originality might have been one of originality’s last gasps.

What I should have argued to the Googlians was that there is nothing romantic about originality at all. It’s as run-of-the-mill as your own irreducible, nonduplicable, profoundly specific life—a fact that we often lose sight of at a moment when we are all being pulled by various modes of social networking into the madding crowd. Of course there is nothing new under the sun; everything has been thought, said or done. But no one is quite like anyone else, and so long as you are honest about your experience, no two people will ever make intellectual or artistic sense of the world in the same way. Style is the hallmark of a temperament stamped upon the material at hand. And you can go ahead and Google that. It’s still, as they say in Mountain View, a great line.