Welcome To Adjacent Possible
A newsletter exploring where good ideas come from, and how we can keep them from turning against us.
Who is Steven Johnson anyway and why should I subscribe to his newsletter?
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 American Innovations.
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 was going to ask about that—what the hell is the adjacent possible?
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 into beneficial places.
So what do I get as a paid subscriber?
One curious side-effect of the pandemic for me is that it revived, among a few old friends, a practice that was a defining component of my first years online: long-form, ruminative email threads on a single, loosely-defined topic. Maybe some of you are old enough to remember this as well: in the early days of email, before our inboxes started to fill up with Zoom session invites or spam appeals for political donations, I remember embracing email as a new form of letter-writing, sending long missives to old friends about what Nirvana’s breakthrough success meant to indie culture, or the relative merits of New York vs. California, or any number of other topics. Those conversations were casual and unedited but also capable of surprising insight and depth at their best moments. For some reason not entirely clear to me, I found myself diving back into that digital epistolary mode in pandemic times: weaving long email threads about the science of consciousness or the urgency of focusing on long-term existential threats or the state of contemporary popular music.
And so part of what I want to do here is to bring that format that I have long savored in private — and make it a little more public. Every few weeks I’ll engage in an email-based conversation — not straight interviews, conversations — with some of the smartest people I know. Some of them will be names you’ll recognize; others will be names you should recognize, because they’re doing fascinating and under-appreciated work. This fall, for instance, I’ll be talking with NY Times columnist Ezra Klein about social media and political polarization, and with Roam Research founder Conor White-Sullivan about building new software platforms for creative thought. I’ll also be in conversation with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Think Again author Adam Grant. Paid subscribers will have a front row seat for all of these conversations.
In addition to these conversations, I’m going to write a new essay once a month that will be exclusive to Adjacent Possible, and only accessible to paid subscribers. Some of them will be responses to new developments in tech/science/health, others will offer an early look at material I’m working on for upcoming books or TV series.
There are two main tiers to the paid subscription. You can be a regular paid subscriber for $5/month or $50/year. (Given the innovation themes we’re exploring here, some of you should be able to expense the subscription to your employer — I mean, what company doesn’t want more innovative employees?) For those of you who have really valued my books over the years, you can be an “Ideal Reader” for $120/year. If you sign up for the Ideal Reader subscription, I’ll send you a personalized, signed hardcover copy of each new book I write, starting with my latest book Extra Life, for as long as you remain a subscriber.
I’m not sure I’m quite ready to pay for this thing. What do I get if I go the unpaid route?
With Adjacent Possible, I’m going to try something I’ve always wanted to do, which is to revisit the back catalog of writing from my books. (This will be accessible to all subscribers, paid and unpaid.) I’ve written 13 books, which comes out to about 4,000 pages of the work that I have spent the most time researching, polishing, editing. And yet I would wager only a couple hundred pages of that work have ever been published outside book-form—in a magazine excerpt, say, or a post I self-published on my blog or at Medium. Books are strange in that they contain the very best of our ideas, but most of those ideas are not in wide circulation, because they’re trapped behind the ultimate paywall. (In many cases, they’re not even searchable, thanks to the longstanding dispute between Google and the Author’s Guild.) And many of my books are actually surprisingly modular: you can read a five-page section and it will stand on its own quite nicely.
So each month I’m going to resurface an excerpt from one of my books—one that has never been published outside of the original book itself—and update it with a little commentary or further reading.
In addition to these essays, all subscribers (paid and unpaid) will get periodic updates on all my various other escapades: new books, podcast episodes, magazine articles, public happenings — and links to other people’s work that has struck my fancy lately.
I hope you’ll join me for this journey into the Adjacent Possible.