Collective Consciousness: Is Everything a Reboot?
Wikipedia: Collective conscious or collective conscience (French: conscience collective) is the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. The term was introduced by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his Division of Labour in Society in 1893.
Merriam-Webster redirects to the term “group mind” with this definition: 1) the beliefs and desires common to a social group as a whole; 2) a hypothetical psychic unity or collective consciousness of a group of individuals.
The first time I heard the term “collective consciousness” was several years ago during a meeting of my critique group. The conversation bounced subjects, and we came upon the term as it relates to the frustration of hammering out a new and brilliant idea, only to discover midway through the process that a bunch of other people thought of the same thing, and at least one of them already published a book using a nearly identical premise.
Now, I’m not talking about general tropes, like boy-meets-girl. I’m talking about something more specific, like an-algae-skinned-ghost-inhabiting-a-shipwreck-terrifies-fortune-hunters. And all of a sudden, midway through a 50,000 word manuscript—poof!—Random House publishes a story by another author with the exact same premise. And a week later, two similar stories pop up on the radar. A day after that, TNT announces a new show in their season lineup about an-algae-skinned-ghost-inhabiting-a-shipwreck . . .
You get the idea.
It isn’t surprising, given the number of people in the world, that more than one would develop similar ideas. And yes, I realize that an author’s voice and presentation will differ one from the other, survival of the fittest determining who will win and who will lose. But in terms of how themes emerge, how the heck does it happen all at once? And this is not unique to writers. Other groups run into the same trouble.
For instance, did you know that the reason Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for the telephone is because he filed for his patent earlier in the day than Elisha Gray, who had developed a similar device? Bell was the fifth person to file for a patent on February 14, 1876. Elisha Gray was thirty-ninth, giving new meaning to the phrase, “You snooze, you lose.” Poor Antonio Meucci developed a talking telegraph in 1871, five years ahead of both Bell and Gray, but due to some bad luck his invention was never patented. How many other inventors, whose names we will never know, worked on a similar device? (Note: A lot of legal wrangling ensued over the Bell/Gray issue, with Bell eventually winning the patent.)
The point I’m getting at with all of this is that generating a completely new idea is, while not impossible, pretty darn tough to do—even the world-changing Microsoft borrowed heavily from that trendsetter Apple, which in turn borrowed heavily from Xerox. While Xerox was suing Apple, Apple was suing Microsoft. It seems that at any given time, one or ten or ten thousand of our fellow earthlings might be cogitating ideas similar to our own. This doesn’t make our individuality less, but does offer up a challenge to create our own personal spin on a thing. And what a challenge it is.
Some of the biggest literary hits of recent memory were not new ideas. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series trotted out the old vampire tale, added some sparkles, and created an empire. E.L. James employed the much-used hero-is-a-billionaire trope and took Fifty Shades of Gray to the bank. And though these are the names we remember, they weren’t the only ones on the playing field with those themes at the time. They were the ones who climbed over collective conscious, who beat the curve, and came out on top of the dog pile.
So, “collective consciousness” as defined by Merriam-Webster (group mind) is a (hypothetical) psychic phenomenon. Do you believe that? Have you seen it in action in your neighborhood, church, workplace? Have you ever experienced and been frustrated by it? What do you think? And what about the following quote by Mark Twain—true or false?
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
See you Friday for Observations From the Tub!