I am not the only one thinking about this. Kirby Ferguson created beautiful series "Everything is a Remix" in which he attacks the concept of originality from a very interesting perspective, stating that every new idea is just a new arrangement of ideas already present in society. A new remix! It would take far too much to invent everything each time anew. Usually we just collect bits and pieces from others and stick them together in our own way. The "inspiration factor" is also not to be neglected. Ideas don't fall from the sky, they are a result of a very complex and intertwined relations we have. And I agree with the most part. See his videos for more detail on this.
What I want to argue here is that even if Kirby is wrong (which he's not) the concept of originality is still wrongly on the pedestal of our pursuits and values. Even if originality per se existed, we should value it far less than we do!
Why do I think that? In small part because the idea of originality is confused with creativity itself (creativity is much more, read my 4-part series, especially the last part), but mostly because in this society originality is confused with something completely different: quality*!
It is hard to explain how this came to be. But I suspect that it has to do with the technologies of massive reproduction (books, newspaper, radio, TV, internet...). John Berger in his book "Ways of Seeing" talks about from the artistic perspective, Nassim Nicholas Taleb in "The Black Swan" from economical, and I will try to merge these two arguments into one with a little bit of my own flavor. Wish me luck. Here it goes.
In the times before massive reproduction every piece of art existed in one copy only. Every music performance was unique in space and time and one had to travel to the concert hall in order to experience it. The same way if one wanted to see Michelangelo's fresco there was no way around going to Rome. It is hard for us to imagine it now; but there were no books on art and no musical records. At all!
This brings about many consequences; every piece of art was experienced in its own dedicated context upon which the artist had much more control than today. The painting didn't appear in toothpaste commercial as it may nowadays - it was just in one place so there were less ways to experience and understand it.
Economically things were even more unlike today. Because there were no radio or physical media to carry music, each performance had to be live. That created a huge demand for musicians. Of course the local guy probably wasn't as good a pianist as Horowitz, but he was close enough and he could make a nice living in a small town where he lived. Well, once records started to sell he could not compete with Horowitz anymore. It is not so much that the difference between him and the big guy was so obvious, it is much more that it seems pointless for people to pay 8€ for a local ticket when 12€ can buy an endless repetition of near perfect Horowitz's execution. Slowly local pianist went out of business, and the only way left for him to survive is to teach kids at a local music school. But that is probably not why he chose to be a musician, is it? On the other end Horowitz gets more and more fans and slowly consumes nearly the whole market share of piano lovers. It is a "winner takes it all" situation that is repeated so many times over in our present day society. Suddenly we have things like fame and celebrities: people who are not necessarily better at something than the rest, they just had a slight advantage (whatever that might be, most times luck) over others to take it all. Historically speaking this is relatively new and we don't have much experience with it. History had many hot-shots and big egos, but never before was this so pronounced as it is today. Never before this was viewed as a prototype of success.
I am not saying that people on top are not deservingly there, of course they are insanely talented and hard working. My argument is, that they are not the only ones with those qualities. It is just that since the system benefits so rare few it is impossible for all the good and hard working to reach the top. After we exclude all the positive personal traits (which many have), luck and chance are the only ones that separate those few winners from all the rest. They will probably write their memoirs and make their list of "10 habits of the successful" to further perpetuate the idea of non-random success. From their perspective their success indeed does not appear random at all, but looking at a greater distance things are different. Random chance plays a huge role which we are not ware of. In fact; most of the time we tend to believe the complete opposite.
This creates a tremendous pressure on the rest of society. People tremble under the weight of expectations which are brought upon them by parents, peers and even them selves (see Alain de Botton). In this rat race every inch matters. If you are an architect, competing for clients and prestigious commissions, it is really good for you to appear in architectural magazines. Every such exposure will push you further to the top, luckily to the "take it all" position of fame and fortune. Obviously you'll try to be as different from the competition as you can be to get the edge you need. The concept of originality gets its first steroid injection.
And magazines are a competitive business just as well. They have to sell! The editors will tend to select projects that attract attention of potential buyers; 'original' ideas, famous architects, even more famous investors, or for the most time simply weird shit. Anything that attracts the eyes will pass. Put some of that Zaha's exhibitionism on the cover and you have a buyer!
These two cycles enforce each other; architects compete for publications by doing weird shit while the magazines reward them for doing so. In the process the idea of originality gets confused with the concept of quality since nobody questions the assumption that magazines publish works of great quality.
Again what I am not saying: I am not saying that works published in magazines are bad just because they are weird or 'original'. Some indeed are of good quality (in terms of production, functionality and sometimes even aesthetics), but many really really good works (and hence architects) are being left out simply because they posses the more silent looks or technologies used.
But since only 'original' appears in magazines or on TV in public eyes the more spectacular means better (spectacularity is for those who lack intelligence to be original... it is a degenerate form of originality, the final stage of this race). Choosing spectacularity over quality can be very insulting towards the client or the public in general. People are not that stupid. Works that respect (respect, but not demand) people's intelligence have a much longer lifespan.
In worst case artists, architects or musicians fall into the same trap of confusing originality with quality, and compete in completely wrong arenas, often neglecting that being really really good is in fact enough (often it is also harder). They will sacrifice quality of their works for the sake of supposed originality. They will go even as far as diminishing your own work simply because it is not spectacular, even though it might be on a much higher level of skilled execution than anything that came before. Confusing originality with quality is indeed dangerous and even corrosive because it propagates a wrong set of values. Why wrong? Because 'originality' is a function of fashion, and fashions come and go. Of course some degree of applied style is indeed inevitable (Gombrich's Art and Illusion will prove you that beyond any doubt), but what matters on a longer time scale is quality and not 'originality'. You may have both, but you definitely want to have quality first! Or as the designer Eric Gill put it: "If you look after truth and goodness, beauty looks after herself." The same probably originality.
* quality: there might be a little semantic problem here... In Slavic languages "kvaliteta" is transformed to adjective "kvaliteten-a-o" (depending on a gender) which means that something is of a good quality. Hence even the noun "kvaliteta" is used as a positive trait, meaning that something is built or executed extremely well. We don't use it in a way that is also common in English, like an ambiguous property of something (like: The rose has a red quality to it...) I know it sounds stupid, but just to underline certain difference in how differently we use this word. In this text please take into account that I intend to use it in a Slavic way.