In Everything is a Remix, digital filmmaker Kirby Ferguson has created a four-part serialized ode to remixing as innovation. Ferguson sees all artistic pursuits as derivative of their predecessors to some degree, and in parts 1 and 2, he methodically demonstrates how creative endeavors considered revolutionary in their fields are often highly reliant on the groundwork laid by their forerunners. It’s all about “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Heavy metal pioneers Led Zeppelin were thoroughly indebted to the blues, borrowing liberally from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” on “Lemon Song,” while Star Wars’ shots can be matched, with a surprisingly high degree of correspondence, to scenes from Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa films.
Ferguson believes that all creation is the result of copying, transformation, and combination, and the series’ third and fourth installments show Apple to be the ideal example of this process. Xerox had initially developed the scroll bar, pop-up menus, and the desktop-inspired interface. Apple, however, copied Xerox’s work, transformed the interface by simplifying the user experience, and combined the computer with the idea of a home appliance, yielding its iconic Macintosh model. It was Apple’s lower price point and focus on everyday usability that made the Macintosh vastly more popular.
In the most recent addition to the Everything is a Remix series, above, Ferguson returns to Apple, and uses its iPhone as a standalone case study in innovation. Apart from the sizeable engineering problem of creating a viable multi-touch screen, Apple was forced into uncharted waters in phone design by removing the iPhone’s keypad and replacing it with screen area. To make the novel device seem accessible to consumers, Apple incorporated elements of old technologies: users saw a reel to reel tape deck in the podcast app, heard typewriter clicks when they entered text, and flipped virtual pages in iBooks. Ferguson demonstrates that it is precisely the coupling of the iPhone’s peculiar new touch screen with familiar visuals and interfaces that allowed Apple to woo a leading share of customers to its phone.
The most interesting development arrived by 2010, when multi-touch screens had become a smartphone standard, and Apple was forced to innovate in different ways. No longer needing to familiarize users with the technology, the company was free to work solely within the medium, which allowed the latest iteration of its mobile operating system, iOS 7, to have dramatically fewer features grounded in real-world design. Instead of looking for material inspiration in tapes and typewriters, Apple assessed its competitors and integrated their phones’ best attributes into iOS 7. This new iOS borrowed its control center and pull-down notifications features from the Android operating system, while its multitasking paid homage to Windows, Android, and perhaps even Palm Pre phones. The visuals, too, were dramatically simpler, flatter, and less realistic, in line with a style that’s become largely associated with the Windows phone. All in all, just another example of remixing as innovation.
To watch Ferguson’s complete series on remixing as a form of creativity and innovation, as well as more of his work, head to our previous post Everything is a Remix.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.