What's the big idea?

Scene 1: I was waiting at the lounge of Charles de Gaulle airport with a friend who had overdone the Gorgozola and Cabernet routine somewhat during our stay in Paris. The result — a really bad stomach. After using the loo for the umpteenth time, he sat down next to me with an exasperated expression and said, “It’s very embarrassing when everyone can hear the loud sounds you make. I think some one ought to design a toilet where the sound reverberates back and is absorbed by the bowl!” I remember thinking to myself: “Wow! Echo-proof toilets! That’s an innovation that most people would welcome.”

Scene 2: It’s 4 pm at our Andheri office in Mumbai. We are late for a meeting. I hurriedly shut down my computer and then dismay strikes! The CD ROM I need for the meeting is in the CD drive! I think: “Wouldn’t it be great if it was possible to eject or close CD-ROM tray when computer power is off?”
In both the above cases, situations and stray comments led to product-ideas. That’s the beauty of an idea. It can strike any time, anywhere. You can get ideas when you are asleep. Or even if you are blind. You don’t even have to pay to get an idea.

The history of man is the history of his ideas. The wheel was a big idea. So was fire. Using metal as a tool instead of bone and stone was an idea. In the modern context, using sand and silica as a data storage device is also an idea. It’s amazing that something as powerful, as profound as an idea is handed over to us, absolutely free, without any pre-conditions, without any collateral, without any liabilities. Without doubt, an idea is the world’s best working capital.

Best working capital
It’s very interesting to explore the various facets of an idea. An idea is an output of the mind. But it exists in various forms. Sometimes, an idea can be an articulation of truth. Gravity was a truth. It had always existed. But Newton saw it more clearly than the rest. So he expostulated it and that made it an idea.

An idea can be a juxtaposition. Ideas can happen when you superimpose one context over another. Picasso’s cubism was a juxtaposition of a geometric form on the physical environment. All remix music is a juxtaposition. Even parody as a theatre form is a superimposition of absurdity on realism.

An idea can be inversion of a belief. Interestingly, it can be the antithesis of an existing idea. Copernicus’s idea that the earth is not the centre of the solar system was an idea, based on the inversion of the existing idea that the earth is the centre of the universe.

The immortal line of Nell, from the play, The Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” is also an inversion idea. So is the whole genre of tragi-comedy. Indeed, many of Shakespeare’s tragedies are really comedies out of which the tragic arises. Even the French New Wave cinema spearheaded by directors like Renoir, Truffaut and Bresson was a resplendent reaction to the excesses of melodrama, theatricality and lack of realism prevalent in French cinema. Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows’, for instance, was full of new ideas. He shot on location, chose real characters and showed a wife having an affair — all for the first time ever.

An idea can also be a new sound, a new experience or a new image. Van Halen’s guitar sound or Kishore Kumar’s yodeling is a new idea. There are societies in Europe that let you experience a pagan initiation rite, complete with an animal sacrifice and Druidic incantations, for a fee — again a new idea. Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ sculpture was a personal interpretation of a famous historical event — again, a never-seen-before image.

An idea can be a leap of faith. The finest example of this is probably, religion. The very notion that we are being monitored by a higher power that has total control over our destinies, is a staggeringly original idea. The Egyptian concept of afterlife is again, an idea, that was widely accepted by the people, without ever being questioned.

An idea can also be a complete abstraction. The best example, being language. Language is a set of pre-decided sounds and beyond a point, there is no link between a particular sound and what it is supposed to mean.

An idea could also be a new way of doing an old thing. James Joyce wrote Ulysses using stream of consciousness — where he meticulously jotted down every thought that crossed his mind in a single day. Wim Wenders, the great German film director, made a feature film, by actually filming a dying man. On my visit to the Pompidou museum a few years ago, I saw an artist painting on a horizontal canvas except that the medium being used wasn’t oil or water colour, but his own blood and semen! Ben and Jerry created an ice cream by adding not sugar but chili flakes!

In today’s context, we are also witnessing a fascinating interplay between the technology and the idea. Sometimes, the idea rides on the technology. And sometimes, it’s technology that enables the idea. The line between the imaginative artist and the facilitating engineer is rapidly blurring. For instance, Guy Kawasaki, renowned start up entrepreneur recently started a site called truemors.com, a site for putting together rumours, for just 12 thousand dollars! Technology is slowly converting a huge army of consumers into potential idea generators by giving them the platform and the relevant tools. There is another stunning statistic which blew my mind. I recently read that in South Korea, one out of six people blog!  
You might ask how do ideas happen? What is the exact mechanism by which the mind conjures up these magical concoctions? Well, nobody knows. But there are some learnings, I have gathered, after having spent years in a profession where my main job is to, well, generate ideas.

First, ideas are the result of a collaboration between the mind and the subconscious. Cultivating the subconscious is an essential requirement to keep the idea stream flowing. It’s no coincidence that most profilic idea generators have an introspective streak in them. They spend a lot of time,  communicating with their subconscious. Second, it is important to banish fear. The fear of failure, the fear of losing a job, the fear of being persecuted for your beliefs. This is borne out by history as well. At Emperor Vikaramaditya’s court, where the atmosphere was liberal, idea generators, from every field really thrived. From Kalidasa (literature) to Sushruta (surgery) to Aryabhatt (Mathematics) to Varahamira (astronomy). The third aspect is good old-fashioned practice. The more ideas one thinks of, the better one gets. Creativity, like kickboxing or golf, needs to be exercised on a regular basis.
Today, thanks to the Internet and heightened collaboration, man is in a position to generate and dissipate ideas faster than ever before. The key challenge will be — how well we can nurture and harness ideas that help mankind. And how efficiently we can eliminate and prevent the spread of ideas that threaten us. Paypal may be an idea but so is the Trojan virus. Fissile material for electricity generation is an idea but so is fissile material for a ICBM.
(The writers are senior advertising

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