Are you having a big, breakthrough idea right now? A stroke of genius? A rare, Eurekan burst of insight?
Congratulations! Except for one thing:
This is what’s known as the principle of “multiples,” which posits that genius breakthroughs in innovation, science, and the arts aren’t rare at all. They’re quite common. And once you understand that, it can change the way you think about developing really big, interesting ideas.
The modern story of multiples begins back in 1922, when two sociologists — William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas — published a paper on the concept. “It is an interesting phenomenon,” they wrote, “that many inventions have been made two or more times by different inventors, each working without knowledge of the other’s research.”
For example, they found that four different astronomers in 1611 independently discovered the existence of sunspots. The law of conservation of energy was hit upon by four different scientists in 1847. The telephone was invented separately by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell nearly at the same time, and Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele both discovered oxygen in 1774. On and on went their list of things that had been multiply pioneered: The decimal point, nitrogen, the pendulum clock, the theory of evolution, the typewriter. In all, they catalogued 148 examples.
The co-occurrence of genius was so common it led them to pose a question that was equal parts profound and mischievous: “Are inventions inevitable?” It seemed as though the innovations sort of willed themselves into existence, with the actual inventor being almost interchangeable — merely a piece of handily available wire, through which the voltage of genius coursed when the time was ripe. (The precise coinage “multiples” arrived a few decades later, courtesy another sociologist, Robert Merton.)
The concept of multiples seemed radical and weird. It inverted typical Western, romantic ideas of genius and inspiration. What was going on? Why were breakthroughs so relatively common, and simultaneous?
It’s because, as Ogburn and Thomas noted, they don’t come merely from the brains of brilliant people. Sure, the “mental ability” of an inventor was crucial, they noted. But the other half of an invention is “the existing status of culture.” Inventors’ ideas are influenced and midwifed by the state of technology around them, the conversational topics in society, and the maturity of other science and artisanship they’re building on. Since inventors are embedded in the same environment with each other — particularly if they’re in the same social and educational class — it increases the chance they’ll turn their minds to similar problems.
So again, let’s say you’ve got a bold new idea. Knowing that multiples exist, there are likely several other people out there nursing precisely the same one.
How should you respond to that?
Odds are you’d try to keep the idea to yourself. After all, if you’re trying to make money off the idea, or claim exclusive credit for it — a concept for a movie, a scientific discovery, a potentially profitable invention — multiples are a terrifying concept. You need to beat the other folks! Move as quickly as you can! Publish first, get your concept to the patent office as quickly as possible! This spirit of competition is powerful and fruitful, of course. It can bring out people’s best.
But it can also be wasteful. When competitive inventors and creators keep their cards close to their chest, they can’t learn from one another. They wind up making the mistakes someone else has already made. Merton found that nearly one-third of mathematicians discovered, upon publishing their work, that someone had already plowed the same territory. As Tom Standage notes in The Victorian Internet, in the early 19th century there were about 60 different attempts to build telegraphs — using “bubbling chemicals, sparks, or the twitching of pith balls to detect tiny electric shocks sent along wires,” among other schemes. But because the inventors weren’t connected together and talking openly about their experiments,
Ironically, once they got the telegraph working, it created instantaneous global communication. It led to phones, faxes, and eventually today’s Internet. And this is where things get interesting, because being persistently connected to everyone else on the planet can let us turn multiples to our advantage. You can use them as a thinking process.
In the old days, of course, simultaneous inventors usually had no way of intuiting each other’s existence. They had no easy way to talk publicly to the planet, no mechanism to quickly locate other people who shared their obsessions.
Now they do. If there’s one thing our digital world is good for, it’s enabling instant, ad-hoc think-ins! Once one person starts posting openly about a problem or a project they’re wrestling with, others often hear about it and jump in.
Some of the biggest, most globe-spanning projects began life this way. Linux sprang to life when Linus Torvalds openly posted that “I’m doing a (free) operating system … and I’d like to know what features most people would want.” Soon, volunteers around world were offering ideas and writing code for Linux, since they, too, wanted an open-source system for their computers. Ushahidi, a tool that lets anyone set up a open map to crowdsource information in a crisis, was born in a similar fashion when Ory Okolloh blogged openly about the idea. She’d been trying to compile reports of post-election violence in Kenya, and noted: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?” Within days, like-minded geeks had offered their skills to build Ushahidi. And the development of the wildly popular Arduino microprocessor followed a similar curve. The developers open-sourced the design for the Arduino, and soon hardware hackers began suggesting refinements and improvements, and engineering add-on devices.
This isn’t just limited to big inventions, either. It’s part of people’s everyday thinking processes. Nearly every subject-based discussion board — new mothers on YouBeMom.com, the thrashing denizens of snowboarding forums, the four million knitting-and-crocheting fanatics on Ravelry.com — is full of people talking out loud about their questions, worries, and ideas, precisely because that’s a superb way to find answers and collaborators: In the open. You use the Internet to connect multiples together.
Thinking out loud isn’t the be-all and end-all, of course. Some ideas are best nurtured in private, just as some forms of creativity — like writing a novel — require solitude. And with for-profit ideas, the tension of multiples never goes away. If you want to totally own a concept, you’ve got to remain secretive. (Apple is obvious proof that a secretive process can produce very creative results, to say nothing of massive profits.)
That’s why the people who most benefit from multiples — and from thinking out loud online — will probably remain in the nonprofit world: Artists, activists, and everyday people pursuing their side passions. They know the secret: Fun, crazy ideas are surprising common; fun, crazy people are surprisingly common. We just have to connect the dots.
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for Wired and the New York Times Magazine. This article draws on his book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better.