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Impossible is Nothing

13 January, 2011 1 comment

The Living Earth Simulator has been touted by some as an impossibly big project, like trying to “boil the ocean”.
In short, the Simulator is an attempt to model all of the world’s dynamic systems all at once to uncover the hidden interactions (think oceans, rainforests, deserts, ice caps, plus the human actions).

It occurred to me as I read the story that I haven’t heard the “boil the ocean” phrase used for a while.  Given I do read things which talk about what are truly ambitious projects that seemed quite odd to me.  Maybe it’s a phrase which is falling out of use – but the Google Ngram book analysis says otherwise.  Thinking really hard about it, you might put it down to either/both:
– People today are less likely to suggest something is impossible,
– There is actually less that is impossible in today’s world,

One of my most favourite TED talks by Kevin Kelly (from Dec2007, so everything he says seems REALLY obvious) is about the first 5,000 days of the internet and what the next 5,000 might bring, and one of my most favourite lines from his presentation:
“We have to get better at believing in the impossible”
He used Wikipedia (which turns 10 on Saturday – yes years) as one example is his talk.  Imagine you are going to create a platform and leave it up to other people to freely volunteer their time to fill that platform with useful information. Do you think that will work?  Would you have thought it would work 10 years ago?

I think the solutions to make things happen are coming so thick and fast that you are better off not worrying about them.  When talking to people about particularly challenging things I will often say something like… “Don’t worry about how.  Just worry about where you want to go, and hopefully someone will have sorted out the how by the time we know where.”  Admittedly I am usually talking about building some sort of business intelligence tool/ dashboard reporting thing, not travelling into deep space or declaring world peace, but you get the idea.
After all a 10 yr old girl can discover a supernova.

And early on the year, the afterglow of a new year’s resolution still upon you, is just the time to be thinking about what really is possible.

Keith

“You can have anything you want if you will give up the belief that you can’t have it.” – Dr Robert Anthony

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What is our ‘adjacent possible’?

I was reading a Wired article with a discussion between Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson about their new books and how they relate to where ideas come from.  The section below particularly caught my eye.

Kelly: I think there are a lot of ideas today that are ahead of their time. Human cloning, autopilot cars, patent-free law—all are close technically but too many steps ahead culturally. Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.
Johnson: The scientist Stuart Kauffman calls this the “adjacent possible.” At any given moment in evolution—of life, of natural systems, or of cultural systems—there’s a space of possibility that surrounds any current configuration of things. Change happens when you take that configuration and arrange it in a new way. But there are limits to how much you can change in a single move.
Kelly:
Which is why the great inventions are usually those that take the smallest possible step to unleash the most change. That was the difference between Tim Berners-Lee’s successful HTML code and Ted Nelson’s abortive Xanadu project. Both tried to jump into the same general space—a networked hypertext—but Tim’s approach did it with a dumb half-step, while Ted’s earlier, more elegant design required that everyone take five steps all at once.
Via: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/09/mf_kellyjohnson/all/1

As a believer of things future (and yes, that does drive other people around me nuts – since I am still waiting for a flying car, everyone to stop using email, and for printers to be removed from offices) the thing that most struck me about this passage was that the best ideas will not get up on a regular basis and instead it is the best ideas that the culture can handle that do.

Does it mean we should only put out ideas which we think people will be able to handle? Not on my watch.
Does this mean we should give up on the grand ideas out there?  I sincerely hope not.
Does it mean we should be less surprised when those grand ideas aren’t taken up? Hmmm…Probably.

Oh well…maybe we should just focus on finding a smaller group who are culturally ready for a bigger change…and re-set our expectations

Keith

PS. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed” – Abraham Lincoln

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