The sexual life of ideas: flirtation, promiscuity, procreation, and seminal creativity but no virgin births

Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 1 of Living Networks on the sexual life of ideas – I’ve always had a good response to this and it remains a relevant metaphor :-)

Ideas don’t like being alone. In fact they like copulating promiscuously with any other idea in sight. There is no such thing as a virgin birth in the world of ideas. Ideas are always born from other ideas: interacting, mating, and procreating. This often orgiastic coupling takes place in the fertile substrate which is the human mind. Our minds are hotbeds of unspeakable activities—ideas have a life of their own, but they need somewhere to carry on their flirtations and breeding.

In her book The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore suggested that humans are purely and simply carriers for memes, which means ideas or behaviors that can be passed on to others. Our species has evolved to become a more refined vehicle for propagating ideas. One result is the desire to produce and consume mass media that seems so intrinsic to our race. Another is our drive to implement communication technologies, to engage more richly with others, and to publish on the Internet.

Using these new technologies, the ideas in our minds can participate in online discussions, starting from the voyeurism of watching other ideas interacting and playing, to the flirtation of engaging with others, however still fairly safe in the limited self-exposure afforded by a text-only discussion. At the other end of the spectrum, when people get together with the explicit intention of creating intellectual property, ideas are essentially procreating. In the free-flowing sexual life of ideas, one of the key dangers is losing your seminal creativity, bearing offspring without sharing in the rewards. There is no child support due in the world of ideas; rather your children may support you. The most fecund propagators of ideas can choose to intermingle freely with others, or guard their worth carefully, like the expensive semen of a prize racehorse.

Idea-X is an online idea exchange established by consultancy Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Participants can either propose ideas or ask for ideas to address a specific problem. A suite of tools allow people to see how other members rate each of the ideas and the people proposing them, and to keep track of the best ideas on the site. The problem with Idea-X and similar forums is that everyone can see the ideas and use them as they will. At the other end of the spectrum is PLX.com, an online market for intellectual property. Participants can buy and sell intellectual property they have generated, though in order to do so it must first be legally registered, for example by patent, copyright, or trademark.