An old idea in a new context is new.

“Ideas don’t spring fully formed from the mind of an individual. Ideas emerge between people.”

Avdi Grimm, in his closing keynote at Southeast Ruby, told how when he sets out to write a talk, he wants to go out on his deck and walk back and forth until he squeezes the ideas out of his brain. “That works a little, but it’s a slow trickle. Then I phone a friend, and the ideas gush out.”

People think together. Through direct conversations, and through what we write and what we make.

Also at Southeast Ruby, Brandon Weaver talked about how programming languages like Ruby evolve by incorporating ideas from other languages (with a magic book! and 62 original drawings! of lemurs!). When people write horrifying gems to make Ruby to look like Scala, that’s a step in the evolution. Why do it? because we can. To let people see something new. That’s art, man.

And in the opening keynote, I talked about how ideas don’t belong to one canonical source. If some idea has been around (published) since the 70s, and someone recently made it useful in a new library, that is new work! If you find an idea in an article and apply it in your context, that is new work! If you explain a concept to someone who didn’t understand it before, new work! Heck, if you send a link to someone that gives them the explanation that they needed in this situation, that contributes to the idea. It draws a line between the idea and a person, in a context where it is useful.

But what about attribution, about credit?

If you find use in work published by someone in academia, please go to lengths to give them credit, and link to their work publicly. Attribution is currency in academia; it’s scarce and necessary to careers.

My favorite part about naming people who carried an idea to me is that it shows that nothing springs fully formed out of my brain. Everything is a synthesis, a reapplication in a new situation, a restatement — all these are new work.

For me personally, attribution is not scarce. Spreading ideas has intrinsic value. That value also appears between people, in conversation. The reward is who I get to talk with.

In his keynote, Avdi quoted Abeba Birhane‘s work, on “A person is a person through other persons.” None of this is worth anything, alone.