Throughout human history, innovation – including the technological progress we cherish – has been fuelled and sustained by imitation. Copying is the mighty force that has allowed the human race to move from stone knives to remote-guided drones, from digging sticks to crops that manufacture their own pesticides. Plenty of animals can innovate, but no other species on earth can imitate with the skill and accuracy of a human being. We’re natural-born rip-off artists. To be human is to copy.
Of course, the imitative behavior in question does not include outright plagiarism, which is always wrong. Rather, the echo-like actions McGowan’s argument concerns comprise of taking cues from and building off of others’ innovative advances. Babies learn to walk by imitating adults. Writers learn to string sentences together by reading shelffuls of books. Entrepreneurs found game-changing companies by studying the successes of existing organizations.
The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own.
Innovation isn’t the result of a lightning bolt of genius. It’s the outcome of iterative improvements on existing knowledge. So go ahead, borrow a line of code from another developer on GitHub. Thank them for it, and build something new with it. And don’t feel guilty that you couldn’t have done it without the help of another member of the community. If our ancestors felt that way, there wouldn’t even be code to borrow in the first place.