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The Next Old Thing

Illustration Spur Design

Almost always, invention is a matter of synthesis rather than genesis—of combining pre-existing elements to create something new. We can see this principle quite clearly in such groundbreaking innovations as the peanut butter cup and the spork.

Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most rabidly inventive thinkers in history, understood that he was merely continuing the work of those who had come before. “If I have seen further,” he wrote to a colleague in 1676, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

More recently, the notion of invention as a collaborative process has taken a hit, and for this we can blame the evolution of the digerati. People like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are held up as almost mystical figures, men whose ideas came to them in a flash of divine inspiration.

What gets lost in this sort of pop mythology is that the iPhone, when you get right down to it, is a combination of a telephone, a Walkman and a Polaroid camera. With this in mind, we took a look at some of this year’s gleaming tech breakthroughs and had our suspicions confirmed. Many of the ideas behind the gizmos we’ve highlighted here could be described as novel, but there’s nothing here that doesn’t call to mind something (or someone) we’ve seen before.

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