There is a great verse in the Bible, in the Book of Ecclesiastes which reads “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This verse is often cited in relation to the process of creativity, surmising that nothing created is truly original but everything is a remix or a mash-up of a previous creation.
A remix or mash-up is simply when two or more elements are combined to form a new element with a different meaning. Creative individuals develop new things from the spare parts of old things cobbled together in a new way. Creativity is like combinatorial play. A lego set is an apt metaphor for creativity. These are colourful interlocking plastic bricks which can be assembled and connected in many ways, to construct such objects as vehicles, buildings, and even working robots. Anything constructed can then be taken apart again, and the pieces used to make other objects (Wikipedia). There is an element of reverse engineering in the creative process. This is the act of taking apart an idea or thing to figure out how it works in order to use that understanding to produce something new from the old.
Steven Johnson referred to creative ideas as works of bricolage. He argued, in his Wall Street Journal essay, that creative individuals simply take the ideas they have inherited or stumbled across and then jigger them together into something new. This fits with the remix or mash-up philosophy of creativity. Johnson refers to these creative individuals as tinkerers in his book who often recycle and recombine old ideas and things to produce something new. While Malcom Gladwell in his own essay on Steve Jobs based on the work of two economists, Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, referred to creative individuals as tweakers. These are individuals who borrowed from what existed and tweaked them to produce something new and different. Whatever the label: tinkerer, tweaker or remixer, all creative people draw from the past and present to create the new. They adopt, adapt and improve on what exists. History shows that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Kirby Ferguson’s ‘Everything is Remix’ videos below are worth watching for more information about creativity and remix.