Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: ORIGINAL.

Photo: ‘Original’ seeds — non-hybridised, traditional vegetables seeds.

My understanding of ‘original’ is that it implies being the first made or performed. It excludes copies and it must therefore exclude iterations of an idea, a product, a technology. It seems to be the consensus that there can be only one original and it must, by definition, be the first. But — can something original emerge from an aggregation of other ideas and practices? I’ll come back to that later.

In a way, defining what is regarded as original is time, context and classification dependent. For example, someone somewhere and somewhen came up with the idea of painting an image of something. Think of those ancient cave paintings in France and the Australian Aboriginal rock art of the Kimberlies. At some time someone in those ancient cultures made the first painting. Although the classification of activity called ‘painting’, the practice of it, had to have been first developed at some place and time, there was no contact between those cultures so we have to ascribe originality to both as one could not have learned from the other.

It follows that within each of those cultures subsequent, similar art could not be classified as original but as copies of the technique, and, as time went on and variations appeared, as iterations of the original idea. It’s much like the iPod. The technology of storing and playing MP3-formatted music on a digital device was invented probably in the nineties when the original device came onto the market. Subsequent players, such as Apple’s iPod, were iterations of the original idea.

This suggests that what is sometimes regarded as original is a new product or idea built upon earlier ideas. Thus, the first steam train was developed from stationary steam engines designed to pump water from mines.

Originality and emergence

My question is this: can an original idea emerge from the aggregation of many other ideas?

Why I ask is because I have a long association with the permaculture design system, practicing, teaching and writing about it. Permaculture implies permanent culture, which today we might think of as resilient human cultures capable of bouncing back from pressures rather than falling apart. It is an approach to designing human settlements, procuring our life needs and of community development that does not reduce the capacity of future generations to do those things.

Stimulating this question was a conversation on a US permaculture social media site. A few of the correspondents alleged that permaculture was not authentic or an original invention. Their reasoning was that it borrows from traditional cultures. Permaculture also draws on ideas from modern societies as well as indigenous cultures, on the sciences and on practices both traditional and new. As its inventors, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren pointed out in the first books on the design system, permaculture is a ‘synthesis’ of those ideas.

This brings us to the question in my opening paragraph: can something original emerge from an aggregation of other ideas and practices? But… can a synthesis be original?

We know from the science of complexity that new things with new properties can emerge from a sufficiently diverse, complex and dynamic mix of components. The mix of neurones, synapses and other components that make up the human brain gives rise to the emergent properties of self-awareness and intelligence, for example. Intelligence could thus be seen as an original property emerging in biological lifeforms. Yet, it is more than the bits that make it happen.

I think we can thus describe the permaculture design system emerging from its own mix of components as an original system of design. It is not those ideas and practices that it draws on, because it brings them together in interaction to create something more than they are alone. It emerges from the connections between things, between those components and thus, as the design system’s inventors pointed out, it is not the components alone that are important but the connections between them, the connections that allow something novel to emerge from their interaction.

Appropriation or adoption?

Let me get back to that conversation on the US social media site. The term some used was that permaculture ‘appropriates’ the intellectual property of others, that which was originally someone elses’. That term — appropriate — seems to have become a popular word mainly among the university employed and educated. It implies a deliberate action rather than something that is an inadvertent practice. An extreme definition of the word suggests theft.

But that is not how the world works. It denies how, especially in a global, connected civilisation, original ideas are internationalised and spread through cultures. Take music. Do musicians in, say, the Solomon Islands or in the US — people of different countries and ethnicities — appropriate reggae, originally a product of Jamaican musical culture, when they perform, record and perhaps make an income from it? Do Japanese musicians playing in Japanese symphony orchestras appropriate Western classical music when they play and record  it? Do Australian gardeners appropriate Aboriginal food culture when they plant and eat Australian bushfoods? Would I be appropriating a French traditional cultural artefact when I use an Opinel knife?

The quandong is an Australian wild food traditionally eaten by Aborigines. Is its use by non-Aboroginal Australians an appropriation of Aboriginal food or is it merely borrowing and using?

‘Appropriation’ is too simple a concept. It is confused with adoption and use by implying the claiming of ownership. It reeks of academic nit-picking and probably-well-intentioned politico-cultural correctness. It disregards how ideas, arts, technologies diffuse from societies to which they were ‘original’.

Like science, original cultural practices, technologies and arts have leaky margins. They leak out of their homelands and infuse into foreign cultures. When we make use of them we make no claims to owning them. I think we are all the better for that.