Posts Tagged ‘Steven Johnson’

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.
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.

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


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


Chance Favours the Connected Mind

28 September, 2010 Leave a comment

I posted out via Twitter the other day a TED talk by Steven Johnson “where great ideas come from”. (Same video at YouTube).

The guts of this one are fairly simple – Eureka moments aren’t really the way we come up with anything.  It’s actually more like a slow hunch and assisted by our liquid networks.   Ideas take time to form, and often we will benefit from connecting with other ideas to help us solve them (even though they are distracting).
The example he uses in the longer version of how Sputnik helped created a key element of control of nuclear submarines in the cold war which helped create GPS systems that we now all take for granted, as well as his story of Darwin’s theory of evolution are both compelling.

As a 20 minute TED talk its good, but if you can’t be bothered listening for that long, then maybe you will like this 4 min animated annotated version that is also floating around – plus it will help you connect with other ideas in the 16 minutes you have saved.

I just love that I now have a really good excuse for why I am looking at my long and strange RSS reading list when I am trying to solve a problem I don’t have a ready answer for.


PS. “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny …’” – Isaac Asimov

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