Welcome to Steven Johnson’s newsletter, Adjacent Possible
This is a newsletter about innovation—past, present, and future. It explores the two questions that have really been at the center of my work for more than two decades: where do good ideas come from, and how can we keep those ideas from turning against us? If you’re wondering what to expect from this newsletter, here are some of my favorite posts from the archives:
Change Of Seasons: Our ancestors may have shifted back and forth between different work routines and social structures, often in tune with the seasons. Would that be a better way to live?
We Need A Standard Unit Of Measure For Risk: More than three decades ago a Stanford professor proposed a uniform way of expressing your odds of dying from a specific cause: the micromort. It’s time it went mainstream.
There are two paid subscription tiers to Adjacent Possible: for $5/month or $50/year. Paid subscribers get access to a continuing series I’m writing about the tools and best practices for a creative workflow. It’s all about how you can do your best thinking: everything from the best note-taking applications to the science behind why so many people have their best ideas while out for a walk.
Paying subscribers also get access to an exclusive new short-term podcast series I’m doing called How Ideas Happen. In partnership with the TED Interview podcast, I’m asking some of the world’s most brilliant minds about their own creative process. Guests so far have included Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong, and the pioneering medical scientist Eric Topol; future guests include xkcd’s Randall Munroe, Temple Grandin, and David Byrne.
There’s also an “Ideal Reader” tier for $120/year: for that you get all the advantages of the paid subscription but I will also send you a signed, personalized copy of each new book I write, starting with my latest book, Extra Life. You can easily upgrade to any of the paid tiers by clicking the button below.
A bit more about me: I’m a non-fiction writer, podcaster, and occasional TV host. I’ve written thirteen books, including The Ghost Map, Where Good Ideas Come From, and most recently Extra Life: A Short History Of Living Longer. I hosted (or co-hosted) the PBS series How We Got To Now and Extra Life, and currently host the podcast The TED Interview.
If you’re interested in how innovations drive change in society, and how we can learn to better align our broader interests with the march of science and technology, this is the place for you. One of the really wonderful things about my career is that I’ve had the freedom to write about a pretty crazy range of topics: early video games, neuroscience, nineteenth-century cholera epidemics, pirates, evolutionary theory, sewage systems, Middlemarch—I could go on, but you get the idea. You can expect a similar eclecticism in the stories and conversations I’m going to publish here. But I do think there’s a unifying theme behind all those different investigations: they’re all about how new ideas come into the world, and the unpredictable consequences that they invariably trigger. If you want to support new ideas that make genuine progress, it’s essential to think across disciplines, because our world is so complex and so interconnected. I’m an optimist by nature — I wrote a book called Everything Bad Is Good For You, after all — so you can expect to find a sense of wonder and delight here. But a couple of new projects that I’m working are exploring cases where well-intentioned innovation went awry—so we’ll get into some darker places as well. It’s hard not to look back at the last few centuries and not see tremendous progress (life expectancy doubled, smallpox eradicated, clean drinking water in big cities, and so much more), but we still face enormous risks, from climate change, anti-democratic movements, lethal viruses, inequality, not to mention the threats we haven’t identified yet. So in this newsletter, I’ll be looking at the new doors that are opened by the adjacent possible—and asking whether we really want to walk through all of them.
I should probably explain what I mean by the “adjacent possible” given its prominence here. The adjacent possible is a term coined many years ago by one of my intellectual heroes, the complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman; it was the title of an opening chapter in my book Where Good Ideas Come From, and I’ve found over the years that people gravitate to the idea, even though at heart, it is a relatively simple concept. In any system that is evolving over time—whether it’s a biological system or a cultural one—at any given point in that evolution, there are a finite set of ways that the system can be changed, and a much larger set of changes that can’t be made. Think of the pieces of a chessboard halfway through a game of chess: there are a finite set of moves that are possible at that moment of the game, given the rules of chess, and a much larger set that can’t be made. The set of moves that you can make define the adjacent possible at that moment in the game. If you think of it in terms of technology, there’s simply no way to invent a microwave oven in 1650, however smart you might be. But somehow, in the middle of the 20th century, the idea of a microwave oven became imaginable, became part of the adjacent possible.
As I wrote in Good Ideas, “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.” Each moment in our history unlocks new doors of adjacent possibilities. The trick is to figure out what they are exactly, and whether they’re leading us to beneficial places.
That’s what we’re trying to figure out here. I hope you can join us!