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Google Firestarters #7. Kirby Ferguson. Everything is a remix.

Google Firestarters #7. Kirby Ferguson. Everything is a remix.

Kirby Ferguson at Google: Everything is a remix

Firestarters is a campaign.

A campaign targeted mainly at agency planners.

The client is Google and the creative director is Neil Perkin.

I can only speculate as to the objectives of the campaign. But if they include the creation of a community – a word that I don’t use lightly – and if they include the stimulation of debate within that community, then it is an effective campaign.

It does indeed start fires.

The latest execution in the campaign was about Remix Culture.

The speaker was Kirby Ferguson and he pulled a big audience.

He has strongly held views about the nature of creativity and brings these views to life entertainingly with some deeply researched, slickly produced and well presented supporting material.

Here’s a link to the first of Kirby’s Remix videos. You can follow the trail from there.

In a nutshell he preaches a gospel of creativity based on the belief that no ideas are original and that every “new” idea is a copy, a transformation or a combination of existing ideas.

There’s no point in me posting a detailed summary of his talk because Neil himself has already done so.

However I do want to comment on the fire that was started on the night.

Namely Kirby’s provocative statement that, in a remix culture where true creative originality is impossible, “talent is [just] interest”.

Talent is [just] interest.

I’ve bracketed [just] because I’m not certain that Kirby actually said it. But I do know that, if not explicitly said, it was heavily implied by the way that he said it.

I took issue with this at the time and (I think) I still do.

There was some discussion and debate on Twitter at the time – some of it captured in Neil’s Storify – and it also sounds like the fire burned on in the pub afterwards.

In fact it’s mainly the [just] that I take issue with.

Even if creativity is [just] remixing old ideas in new ways, there has to be more to talent than [just] interest.

Interest, or curiosity to give it the name most favoured by the planning set, is important. Without it you don’t have a strong gene pool of influences and ideas to draw from.

But surely talent is also about how well you do the remixing. Surely, if interest levels are equal, then some people will be more adept at the remixing process than others?

Some people are just innately more “diagonal” than others. Aren’t they?

I fell asleep pondering this stuff on Tuesday night, heavily reminded of Robert M Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM).

Said book discusses, with a degree of  frustration, the metaphysics of Quality.

Quality: you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others but what’s the “betterness”?…So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?

And discussing the metaphysics of talent is similarly frustrating.

Frustrating, probably not that useful, but interesting nonetheless.

I was sufficiently interested (talented?) to find this post on the issue prompted by a somewhat jealous chess master pondering the talent of an 11 year old player.

It’s no coincidence that this post also mentions ZAMM because I stumbled upon it when searching for ZAMM/talent references.

It suggests that, in the case of an 11 year chess master, talent is clarity. Or rather talent is the relative absence of obstructions to clarity.

And, later in the same post, the idea that talent might also be the ability to assimilate new truths.

And I guess for assimilate you could read remix.

If talent is some variation of interest + clarity + assimilation, then I’d also suggest that talent is also a function of time.

You need the right kind of time to apply your interest to finding new sources, and you need the right kind of time to allow those ideas and influences to assimilate and remix in new ways.

The discipline of planning in agencies was created in part to ensure that at least one department of people had the time to be interested, provide clarity and assimilate new ideas.

And it’s no coincidence that many planners that I’ve spoken to relish time on trains and coffee shops, staring out of windows with brain freewheeling in neutral. That’s when remixing happens.

As ever Firestarters was quality time. It was an interesting evening in the company of interesting and interested (talented) people.




  1. Thoughtful post Phil, and well articulated. That quote, and the quality issue definitely seemed to come up in the debate after. I don’t know whether you’ve read Matthew Syed’s book on talent – Bounce? That has a really interesting take on talent that essentially argues that with the right basic prerequisites already taken care of (the right body shape to be a marathon runner, for example) talent in just about any field is all about purposeful practice. I wonder if the importance of interest is that it keeps you focused on something enough to get better at it with purposeful practice. I wonder if some people are more ‘diagonal’ simply because they have given themselves more time and experience of thinking in that way?

  2. Pingback: Talent isn’t ‘just’ interest. But maybe interest is a talent « see what happens

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