Open Source, the Crowd and a Frozen Squirrel

On a cold winter’s day back in 1982, my friend and I played a crude version of hockey in my driveway. For hockey sticks, we used broken branches. For a hockey puck, we used a dead, frozen squirrel that had been run over in the road behind my house about 10,000 times. It made for an excellent toy.

For all of you animal rights folks out there, don’t be outraged. I didn’t personally kill the little bugger a la Beavis and Butthead in “Frog Baseball” (Mike Judge, 1992). I simply used “Rocky’s” (Jay Ward, Alex Anderson, 1959) fuzzy, flat, frozen carcass to amuse two bored 12-year-olds looking for something to do. In any event, it seemed more honorable at the time than just shoveling it into a dumpster (and we gave Mr. Squirrel an honorable burial after we were done playing with him).

At the time, I came up with a saying to describe this situation: “Indecision makes a flat squirrel”. I have frequently used this phrase in speaking engagements and in writing ever since. Then “a funny thing happened on the way to the forum” (Steven Sondheim, 1962). Someone recently posted one of those inspirational quotes on my LinkedIn page and there was my saying!

I wondered, could someone else have come up with my saying? After searching the internet, I found that there is no known author. Well, the mystery is now solved: It was me! I’m quite sure this revelation won’t make it to the front page of the newspaper like when Mark Felt revealed that he was “Deep Throat” (Howard Simons, 1972).

Despite my obvious creative genius for odd catchphrases (one in 47 years!), my capitalist instincts aren’t quite as sharp. It seems somebody beat me to the punch and no doubt soon will put my saying on posters, T-shirts and coffee mugs. This situation reminded me of the movie “Flash of Brilliance” (Mark Abraham, 2008), in which the main character’s invention of delayed wiper blades is stolen by auto manufacturers. I guess “loose lips sink ships” (U.S. War Advertising Council, 1942-1945) and my dreams of T-shirt glory are now “Up in Smoke” (Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin, 1978).

So, while “all glory is fleeting” (Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North, 1969), I was miffed.  “Creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” (Thomas Edison, 1903), but given the terrific story behind my saying’s origin, I think I had at least 2% inspiration on this one. But my indignation disappeared after I reflected on the book “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future” (Andrew McAfee, Eric Brynjoffolfsson, 2017) that I recently reviewed in my blog “Rage Against the Machine” (Rage Against The Machine, 1991). “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” (Arthur Fletcher, 1971), but is it a terrible thing to openly share?

According to the book, the best ideas come from crowd-sourcing or essentially giving away information. I guess my saying is my contribution to the world of ideas, and hopefully we will all be better off for it. The crowd “is inherently and deliberately decentralized and uncontrolled. This structure enables freedom of expression and innovation”. At the same time, the crowd has a significant downside: Because of its uncontrollable nature, “some of its members misbehave in hurtful ways”. Flat squirrel mugs anyone?

The authors concede that while crowds are great at creating the best outcomes for certain platforms, they are not designed for everything. “Linux is the world’s most popular operating system, but to our knowledge, no successful novels have been written by a large group”. In other words, creativity and intellectual property still have a place and a largely individual human origin even in an open-source “brave new world” (Aldous Huxley, 1932).

So after reading about the importance of “open source”, I feel a bit better about this situation. I know that by giving away my saying (i.e., speaking openly) and then having someone else commercialize it, I have made the world better, perhaps by advising people to be more decisive. I also may have slightly reduced the amount of road kill by alerting the world to our furry friends’ “evolutionary dilemma” (Charles Darwin, 1859).

Creation is hard and creators should be acknowledged, as I have done by naming the source of every saying in this blog. If you think you are the real, rightful creator of “indecision makes a flat squirrel” (Spencer Levy, 1982), please call me and we can settle the matter over a game of frozen road kill hockey in my mom’s driveway. “Have a nice day!” (Layamon’s Brut, British poem, 1205).

By Spencer Levy, Americas Head of @CBREResearch | Senior Economic Advisor.