Ants, Brains, Cities, and Podcasts
Why the most interesting ideas happen at the borders between disciplines — and my new role as the host of the TED Interview.
Yesterday marked the launch of a new season of the TED Interview podcast, with an initial episode featuring TED Curator Chris Anderson in conversation with the wonderful neuroscientist David Eagleman. At the beginning of the episode, Chris mentions something I have already alluded to here at Adjacent Possible: the news that I am taking over as host of the TED Interview going forward.
I’m hugely excited about this new role, and also honored that the folks at TED have entrusted me with such a terrific show. We have a truly all-star and wonderfully eclectic group of guests that I’ve already interviewed for this upcoming season: chess legend Garry Kasparov discussing the Ukraine situation and his battle against Deep Blue; Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan talking about the role of the novel in making sense of new technological developments; astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein discussing the mystery of dark matter and her quest to make cosmology a more inclusive discipline—and many more.
There will be a lot of crossover between the themes we’ve been exploring here at Adjacent Possible, and what we’re going to be covering in the podcast. (I’m still figuring out the details with TED, but I’m going to be adding some original audio content from each interview that will be available here at Adjacent Possible for paying subscribers.) The first episode I’m involved in is actually a hand-off episode, where Chris Anderson interviews me (and then at the end, I ask Chris a few questions about his now 20-year history with TED.) That episode won’t officially come out until next Thursday, but you can actually hear it now if you subscribe to the TED Audio Collective in the Apple podcasts app. (Subscribing gives you early access to ad-free versions of a number of excellent shows that TED produces.)
Early in that conversation with Chris, he brings up my book Emergence, and the TED Talk I did about it in 2002, during the first conference that Chris curated. (The talk itself is pretty rambling and chaotic, and I completely misjudged the length of it, though in my defense I had basically no idea at that point what a TED Talk was supposed to be like.) Emergence, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, was a book about decentralized systems; the subtitle was “the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.” I thought I’d share this part of the conversation with Chris, because it leads into a discussion of multi-disciplinary thinking and the concept of the adjacent possible itself…
STEVEN: For years, people thought that the ant queen was somehow in charge of the colony, and that's why we have this metaphor of an ant-based “monarchy.” But if you actually look at how ant colonies work, they collectively solve very complicated problems. They can solve engineering problems, resource management problems, figuring out how to build nests in the right location that's the most efficient. They do all these very complicated things. And yet no individual ant understands the big picture, including the queen. The queen is just a reproductive unit; the queen has no control over the whole thing.
And so, over time people studying ant colonies began to realize that there was this kind of distributed intelligence that was happening there. That out of these local actions by individual ants, they were able to solve these very complicated problems. And so I started musing on what that meant: how did that relate to the way that, for instance, our brains work? No individual neuron is thinking, but somehow collectively all of our neurons come together to form something like intelligence or sentience. And I also was thinking about the way that cities work. The cities that have the most character are often the ones that evolved organically without some master planner. The things that we love, the feel of a neighborhood, the identity of a neighborhood, are things that actually evolve organically out of a million isolated decisions that individuals make without the goal of creating a great neighborhood. So all these systems seem to share this property of order or intelligence coming from below, not from above. I was exploring these ideas in the late nineties when there were all these interesting things happening with the web and the internet—Wikipedia was about to launch—and it seemed like we were headed towards a world where more and more of this decentralized organization was going to be crucial.
CHRIS: I mean that idea, that book, that talk, are great examples of the importance of multidisciplinary thinking. If all you were interested in was ant colonies, you wouldn't necessarily get the bigger picture that this is a phenomenon that applies across the board and can really maybe teach us something…
STEVEN: First off, I think you're absolutely right. Whenever I have the opportunity to speak to kids, particularly college kids, one of the things that I say to them is: you have this opportunity for these four years to dabble in a lot of different fields. But when you leave here, all the forces in the world are going to be trying to get you to specialize. And that's fine— focus is important; it's good to have specialists in the world. But if you look at the the history of ideas, the most powerful ones, the ones that are really transformative, they almost always come out of the collision between at least two or three or four different intellectual worlds or traditions or fields or disciplines. The border between disciplines is where the exciting stuff happens. And that's just a very powerful way to think about the world. In Where Good Ideas Come From, part of the thesis there was that innovation generally often happens by borrowing an idea from another field and, and repurposing it in a new context, like Gutenberg borrowing the screw press technology from winemakers and utilizing it to complete his invention of the printing press. He basically takes the technology designed to press grapes and turns it into a technology to print bibles.
The metaphor that I used in that book—which I actually borrowed from Stuart Kauffman, the great complexity theorist—is this idea of the “adjacent possible,” which was a way of thinking about change and how the world evolves over time in both biological systems and cultural systems.
The idea is that basically at any given moment in time, whether you're looking at the evolution of life or whether you're looking at the evolution of a technology, there's a finite set of ways that this system in its current state can change. So when you're back in the early days of the primordial soup, here's no way those proto-life forms can suddenly spontaneously turn into a chimpanzee, right? That’s just not part of the adjacent possible at that moment. Or think about it in terms of technology. However smart you are, there is no way in 1650 to invent a microwave oven. It's just not thinkable as an idea. There are too many building blocks that haven't come along. But at some in the history of life or the history of civilization or of technology, new ideas do become possible. They become part of this adjacent possible at that moment. And so the work of being a creative person or being an innovator is to figure out what new doors have just opened at that particular moment and explore them. And I think one way to do that is to look at what's happening in the fields around you, that often those doors are going to come from other seemingly unrelated disciplines or industries.
CHRIS: I absolutely love that idea of the adjacent possible. In fact I actually think of it now as almost the number one goal of TED, which is to help create or amplify news about what the adjacent possible looks like.
So there you have it: a new chapter for me that will be in many ways an extension of what this newsletter has been about from the beginning. I hope you’ll give it a listen.
That's terrific news. Perfect match. If both Chris and you see the exploration of the adjacent possible as the main goal of TED, then I greatly look forward to the coming year's batch of interviews.
I love the "Emergence"-book. I read this book together with my students throughout 2 or three seminars around 2010. I am still tempted to re-use it in seminar. However, some of the chapters sound a bit outdated today, at least from a student's point of view.