augmented Life

The Adjacent Possible, Part 1

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
–Steven Johnson, The Genius of the Tinkerer 

The idea of “adjacent possible” comes actually out of probiotic biology, where it is used to explain how, amongst a soup of chemicals, enzymes (and eventually living organisms) would eventually form. It also explains why, for example, sunspots were discovered independently by  Thomas HarriotJohannes and David FabriciusGalileo , and Christoph Scheiner all independently between 1610 and 1612 in Europe. Or why oxygen was first realized as a part of the air around us by two independent physicists in the early 18th century.

It’s the fact that in any chaotic system, things are going to be bumping into each other all the time. Most of the time that’s no big deal – things collide, mix, come apart, nothing happens. The general level of technology and human curiosity is concentrated in one particular way, and hundreds of scientists don’t discover a thing even though it’s as common as the air they all breathe…until someone does.

The Tipping Blinking Turning Point of No Return

Once the proverbial chocolate has hit the peanut butter, though, there’s no turning back. Suddenly all sorts of other combinations become obvious, new avenues are set out to explore and change, and sometimes (such as during the Enlightenment, or during the ’90’s Internet boom, or in Japan after World War II) the whole environment seems ripe with potential.

“Potential.” God, how I hate that word. Having been raised as a “gifted child” with “great potential”, I have to say it is quite a burden, unless you have some idea of what to do with it. The problem with having a lot of “potential” is much like the title of Barbara Sher’s book, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. It leads you to do things you don’t necessarily want to, for people you don’t necessarily like, and eventually you end up with other books, like Cheri Huber’s How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Why do all of these kinds of books exist? Why are there Four Hour Work Weeks that urge you to be So Good They Can’t Ignore You Getting Things Done? Because right now everyone is being told they have potential. We’re told, over and over again, that if you follow your passion and set up your own site on the internet you, too can be a happy and successful and secure person. If you’re stressed, you must not be doing “the Art of Stress-Free Productivity” right. You need to try harder. Do better.

The problem with the soup of potential that surrounds us is that we forget that for every Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, there is some chocolate broccoli that didn’t make it. Some peanut butter kimchi that nobody actually wants. Or, as Lindy West on Jezebel pointed out as she ripped to shreds a “manly” article that claimed that “working for someone else is a soul-killer”:

Doesn’t leading encourage following? So if working for oneself is the only manly option, because men are supposed to be leaders, then aren’t you deliberately undermining other males? What does this dude think of his employees? Are all of his male employees insufferable girly-men who wouldn’t know a nightstand if it davenported them right in the credenza? So does that mean that he only hires female employees in the name of male empowerment? Because that’s actually pretty progressive…

Possibilities Eat the Soul

She’s right, of course. For every general you need spear-carriers; more than that, for every few hundred spear-carriers you need a cook, a blacksmith, a quartermaster…the “support” battalions of the USMC far outnumber the actual infantry (though, to be fair, “Every Marine a Rifleman“). The fact is, it’s entirely possible that someone could lead a happy and fulfilled life supporting or following others – in fact, most do.

You may be a state trooper, you might be an young turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes…
Bob Dylan, translated from the original Klingon

But that’s not what we hear. And so every time we are not that independent freelancer, there is the implication that there has somehow been a failure. Or if you are that freelancer but times are hard, there is the implication that you’re not doing something right.

And that’s where the lure of social media comes in.

Life Lottery

What are those rewards that are intermittently given to us by the social media? What are we hoping to find from the news feeds, in the articles, in the constant Facebook posts?

Some of it is entertainment. But I suggest that there’s more: in that constant chaos of newsreaders and lifehacks and status updates there is the hope that we will find that one key piece that we’ve been missing, that one puzzle shape that will suddenly snap our lives into those pictures we keep hearing about.

Worse: if we don’t pay attention to that chaos, we might miss it. Someone else will get it (Sir Kenneth Robinson quips, I almost had it – I came up with “D-Bay”). Or worse, everyone else will get it, and you’ll be left wondering what happened.

It’s back to that whole “fear of missing out” and it’s related to this idea that somewhere in that primordial soup of information is that adjacent possibility where everything is right.

On that rather bleak note, I’ll leave us to finish next week, with part 2.

Congrats, by the way, on your twitter diet! I didn’t get one message (and only one retweet) after the last post, and I’m sure it was entirely due to my inspiring words keeping you all quiet! It’s a pleasure to be of service…




2 thoughts on “The Adjacent Possible, Part 1”

  1. Great article. I’ve railed against that “potential” thing too. In fact I still feel never good enough, never quite to my potential. I could have been anything! I’m *only* a happy working mom and wife. No published novel! No vacation house on the beach! No successful blog raking in thousands of dollars a month! No doctoral degree! I must be failing that stupid potential thing.

  2. The adjacent possible seems like a scary and amazing idea all at once.
    Scary, because who knows what my life could’ve been if I had just…
    And amazing, because who knows what my life could be if I just…

    And yes, I was one of those kids in the honors classes who had so much potential.

    The thing, though, is that I still feel like that person. I still feel like I’m a thoroughbred waiting at the gate for the start of my race, hind legs itching to run. I’m still ready and waiting, hoping to be all those things people expect of me. And I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away. At least… I hope it doesn’t.

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