Ideas, Purpose and Identity

One of the losing battles that university professors are fighting is the battle with plagiarism.  We can’t seem to get students to understand that they just can’t use someone elses’ ideas without attribution.

Much of this has been driven by the internet.  Since ideas are free on the internet, they appear to have no value. Thus, it isn’t stealing.  So students use free music, free tv, free movies, free information.

Yet ideas do have value. Not only the value they contain if monetized or commercialized, but value to us as individuals. Jaron Lanier, in his book, You Are Not a Gadget, suggests that “ideas are a touchstone of identity” (p. 207).  I suspect that is why we resist so fiercely when our ideas are challenged, or when science develops a new understanding of the world. Our resistance to global warming, the high levels of support for creationism, many of the urban myths about food are sticking with us, yet they have weak scientific support.

Why? Our ideas are a part of our mental model of the world. Pull out one idea and the whole mental model can collapse.  And many of our ideas are based on personal observation and experience, which is subject to some hardwired biases that our brains developed to help us survive.  These biases help us make quick decisions, but in the case of complicated science, suggest ideas that are incorrect.

And, because our ideas are a part of our identity, we resist changing them with all of our might.

So if our ideas are a part of our identity, what happens when our ideas get taken without attribution?  What happens when they get mashed up with a half-dozen other ideas? Do they lose their power to define our identity? Does our identity get damaged in some way? If ideas no longer have “ownership” or “creatorship”, how will we construct meaning and purpose for ourselves? Ideas are core to progress. If our ideas are no longer our own, will we have incentive to try to  make change?  I don’t know, but it will be interesting to watch the impact of the internet on ideas.


Categories: Ideas

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4 replies »

  1. I recently listed to a CBC Radio One program that had a guest (I can’t remember which show, darn!) who talked about how post-secondary education is affected by how students are taught in high school. The guest talked about how plagiarism is essentially taught in high school when teachers encourage students to help each other on individual projects, but to put things “in your own words” without explaining what that means, and how you still have to credit others for facts and ideas.

  2. Interesting questions!

    There is a difference between having an idea or a belief and getting credit for having an idea or belief. And so the impact on one’s identity of having an idea taken without attribution is different depending on whether we are talking about having the idea or getting credit for the idea.

    Ideas are not finite things that get moved from Point A to Point B. Having someone take an idea without attribution doesn’t take the idea way from its originator. The originator and his or her identity is not lessened.

    However, if we base our identities on getting credit for having an idea, and someone else takes credit, then our brand as the originator of an idea might be diminished. This is a very important distinction.

    Ideally, the originator of an idea wants to spread the idea and stimulate conversation, and these contribute to meaning and purpose. I admit, though, that I like to get credit for my ideas, and I want people to associate those ideas with me. But again, there is a difference between my identity and my brand, and hopefully my meaning and purpose isn’t tied to my brand.

    I also recognize that this gets a lot more complicated when we’re talking about compensation associated with ideas and not just our identities. But let’s not confuse the issues.

  3. I really think you are beating a self destructive horse to death. A couple of reasons. First, and foremost, the educational system is based on plagiarism and students are rewarded for it. At least, until they enter the halls of higher learning. Then it becomes a problem (sin, if you’re a creationist). Students are bound to, have to attest to, use and display their knowledge of others ideas from day one of entering the education system and they don’t have to mention one word of where those ideas came from. Somewhere they cross a magical zone and have to write something brilliant for their professor and make sure they acknowledge the author of every idea not their own. Ain’t going to happen, they’re already trained too well.
    Second reason is that the well of plagiarism runs dry. If a student consciously sets out down this path they will get to a point where they can’t find any useful ideas that others have thought of before. With an empty well, and an obviously empty mind, their streak of brilliance comes to an end.
    The corporate world knew this a long time ago. They simply reward someone who can pull the right ideas together, as they have been taught, and get the job done. The ones who run out of others ideas are discarded at the appropriate time. Callous perhaps but it makes money.
    Final note. Global warming isn’t happening. Confirmed by the academic scientists who brought you “Earth, the centre of the universe”, “The flat world”, “Thalidomide” and ” Global warming (now called climate change)”.

  4. Now if only CNN could learn that. I caught them nabbing ideas off of my personal blog twice now, no credit, not even an honorable mention. Within two days of posting an original joke on my blog it was stolen and used on CNN World News by one of the lead anchors.

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