Monday, July 27, 2015

In defense of ideas and their ethics

Artwork by Tarek Chemaly (the "Shams Building" series - Ph-Auto Project)
What's Coco Chanel most enduring invention? Pearls? Camelias? Lipstick? Little Black Dress? Tweeds? Chains? The answer is: No, no, no, no, no, no. It was sunbathing. In 1920 she came back to Paris from a holiday in St. Tropez with such a dark skin that accidentally got exposed to sun - previously a vulgar thing associated with lower-class people who worked outdoors in the fields - that sunbathing became so uber-chic. Fast-forward to today, women of all classes parade their dark-skins and compete for salon or beach darkening sessions.
Ideas flow, no one can stop them, they are born to be shared and popularized, they are here to better our lives and enrich them. Sure, there are claims that everything has been said before and there's nothing new under the sun. But that's not true. Building on ideas brings new refreshing, invigorating, frisson-inducing ideas.
People often do the unmistakable error, confusing "information" for "knowledge". Information is just that, facts and figures. Which are incredibly important, I am not negating that. Knowledge is how to put them together, to make sense of them, so that the combination of all these independent facts and figures become more than the sum of their parts.
Have you ever been exposed to Maison Margiela and its founder Martin Margiela (who is no longer part of the house) couture ideas? Every new collection comes brimming with deconstructed ideas, new interpretation of older concepts, they even have a "replica" line. Found clothing which they reinterpret in the highest possible materials. Their best selling sneaker is a reinterpretation of a shoe that was worn by the German army during training. That is genius if there was one.
Have you ever had lunch with Farid Chehab? He is the honorary chairman of Leo Burnett MENA. Thankfully, it is not his position that impresses me. Already an early septuagenarian, and having previously suffered from a debilitating ski accident earlier this year (from which he recovered), you'll have problems keeping up with him. He shoots an idea, as soon as you grasp it, he'd already shot you another, as you struggle with the new one, he's already on a roll and that's just the hors-d'oeuvres (and with this I mean the food not the ideas). Three hours later, because that's an average time for lunch with Farid, you leave the table richer, more educated. And by "educated" I take it in the biggest, widest possible sense.
I don't pretend it is clear cut to say how ideas get generated, or if they have clear ownership. But taking an information from a blog without crediting it is wrong. It is a theft. Copying an idea from someone else and claiming it yours is theft too. Looking at a colleague's computer screen, or portfolio, and spending time at the office doing hours to send the same idea to the boss who is on business trip to Tokyo is also theft. Yes, you can build on ideas and change them to come up with new interesting ones, but you cannot steal ideas outright and still claim them and go to on television and say "I am the new face of advertising in the Middle East". That is arrogance, the kind of arrogance that comes with thieves who think they will never be caught.
I remember the first time I exposed a stolen ad, it was circulating wildly over the email and having been a frequent contributor to the ArabAd magazine I sent it to them and it made a scandal. It is still there in the ArabAd archives, a testimony of a time prior to the current days when you can catch an ad thief by a simple google search. But sadly, the more ubiquitous the availability of information, the more frequent the theft. Especially for today's generation which is used to getting everything for free and ready-made.
An architecture student (even if I do not teach architecture as of yet) asked me about "modular buildings" in the library, I gently guided him to search for "La Cite Radieuse" by Le Corbusier. Five minutes later he comes back with the answer "but it's already been done before!". I had to explain to him that I did not want him to copy it, simply look at it and get inspired to how to change it to apply it to his own project.
A creative mind never sleeps, this whole blog post came to me in my morning walk which I have to take for my diabetes. There's no rest for a creative mind, no office hours. But between building on older ideas and re-conceptualizing them, and stealing them outright thinking no one would notice, there's a big unethical margin. It is called theft.
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