Monday, October 25, 2010

Steven Johnson’s "Where Good Ideas Come From": Cyberspace and the Adjacent Possible

By Carl Hunt
The web, global brains, emergent intelligence, crowd “wisdom”: these concepts have all been associated with the enabling, connective power of cyberspace, and before that the connectivity of towns and cities and forms of media that emerged from collectives of people. In fact, one could argue that these concepts of collectivity are parts of the essence of cyberspace as it exists today. Perhaps today they are also the outcome of cyberspace?
The complex, massive interconnecting fabric often obscures causes and effects so that it’s difficult to identify what’s a process and what’s an outcome. Oh wait, that’s the same way we talk about exchange and emergence in previous blogs (here and here, for example). There’s a consistency here, even if obscured, that might be pointing to a future theory about cyberspace.
If there is a new theory shaping here, it has to do with how we form ideas and how these ideas grow into a way of thinking by which we can test hypotheses about our new ideas and eventually propose actions to take. From actions, we can invent new technology (or reuse the old in new ways) and even discover new science.
It starts with an idea. And, if it’s a good idea, and survives the pressures of selection, we might just make things better for our world. Where do these good ideas originate and how do they help us discover and invent new opportunities for greater success across our species and the world which nurtures us? Those are the great, fundamental questions Steven Johnson explores in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead/Penguin Books, 2010).
Johnson has published several previous books on how ideas became a science or technology, providing context to better understand big ideas. Where Good Ideas Come From follows a similar vein, providing interesting stories about how great discoverers like Darwin worked through the process of bringing to birth new ideas. His examples also generally follow the themes we’ve covered in these blogs: collaboration, emergence, exchange, self-organization and another of my favorites: the adjacent possible.
First popularized by Stuart Kauffman in his book, Investigations (Oxford, 2000), Johnson shows how the adjacent possible makes it possible to visualize innovation and the ideas that lead to it. The adjacent possible “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation” Johnson notes. The adjacent possible tells us “that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” In thinking back about Harold Morowitz’s definition of emergence and the “pruning action leading to the rise of the actual from the possible” that emergence manifests, we can see that these lines of thinking synergize beautifully!
“One of the things I find so inspiring in Kauffman’s notion of the adjacent possible is the continuum it suggests between natural and man-made systems,” Johnson writes. In fact, the history of ideas and creativity is an act of pushing against the limits of what we knew and believed to be true since the dawn of human time, according to Johnson. What towns and cities first made possible in terms of exploring the adjacent possible, cyberspace now empowers in ways barely conceived of outside science fiction even 50 years ago.
Johnson also helps us visualize another wonderful environment for the development of good ideas and the creation of great innovation and novelty: the reef. Using Darwin’s great insights on exploring the ecosystem of the reef, a “tangled bank,” as Darwin described it, Johnson helps us see the relationship of creativity and innovation as a natural consequence and purpose of life.
Although Johnson’s purpose was not to explore cyberspace as a medium for the growth of ecologically-based innovation, his examples of emergent platforms, exaptation, serendipity and the role of error in discovery, clearly relate the connecting power that cyberspace brings today from what was the connecting power of cities and towns before modern forms of communications.
In teasing out the importance of the adjacent possible and emergence, Where Good Ideas Come From helps us explore connectivity and innovation in imaginative ways, rooted in the history and traditions of human creativity and discovery. In fact, if read simultaneously with Kevin Kelly’s new book What Technology Wants (Viking/Penguin Books, 2010), the insights you stand to gain can really synergize! We’ll talk more about Kelly’s new book in the near future.

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