Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”, recently released in paperback, is a wonderful read that attempts to describe the conditions that produce innovative ideas. With chapters including serendipity, liquid networks,exaptation and error, the concept that really stuck with me was the adjacent possible.
The term, adjacent possible, was borrowed from biologist Stuart Kauffman. Johnson defines it this way in a 2010 essay he wrote for the WSJ, “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.” He continues, “The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible.”
A way to better understand the adjacent possible is to remember Thomas Edison’s light bulb. This is an iconic image of a grand idea that folklore has shrunk to an “Aha moment” when, in reality, it crept into existence. It was only made viable after the work of numerous others, over the previous 75 years, in the development of several filament materials and vacuum tubes to name a few, that made Edison able to step into the adjacent possible and make history.
“The basic premise is that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas,” writes Johnson. It is this basic notion, that is captured in the righteous 1st Amendment privileges guaranteed to us in the Constitution, because it applies not only to the evolution of life, or technology but social progress as well. Political innovations, called the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, were brought into being by merging the fruits of the Enlightenment with the framework of the English government, expanding the adjacent possible for societies around the world. This allowed for a future with greater political participation and increased accountability for the powerful. They increased the tools at the disposal of those seeking true freedom and a dignified life, spurring a revolution of rising expectations that has swept the globe. This revolution cannot be stopped.
Victor Hugo once said, “On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.” This translates to, “One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.” Dr. King in a 1968 interview with the BBC, weeks before his atrocious assassination, paraphrased this quote to, “Nothing is as powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come and the idea whose time has come, at least one of them, is the idea of freedom and human dignity.” This is a sentiment that continues to capture the imagination of foot soldiers for freedom all over the world and animate their struggles.
What Americans have witnessed is a corporate invasion of America, without the dramatic bloodshed of traditional warfare but with mass carnage and wreckage nonetheless. It shows itself as income inequality that is the worst in the “industrialized” countries, as well as in the foreclosure crisis, the rampant unemployment, the 50 million uninsured Americans, and so on.
Concerned citizens have now begun to resist with protests and songs, marches and teach-ins, exercising their souls to confront the unyielding greed, inequities, and shortsightedness we see all around us. In the face of this onslaught, it is the invasion of ideas that occupiers are combining from disparate fields of study that will reverse the legal tender deluge.
In doing this, the Occupy Movement is affirming Thomas Jefferson’s assertion, made in a letter to Isaac McPherson on the 13thof August 1813,
“That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.”
The combination of new technologies like social media platforms, HD camcorders, microprocessors and telecommunications infrastructure with the practices of unarmed truth-telling and civil disobedience that are “as old as the hills”, according to Mahatma Gandhi, are opening a new adjacent possible that is resulting in the worldwide, real-time organizing of disaffected people to express dissent and draw attention to the gulf between the promise of freedom and the fulfillment on that promise.
With many people appearing confounded by the Occupy Wall Street movement, it seems clear to me. It has arisen out of the knowledge that the legal, financial, political systems have been totally corrupted by the influence that vast wealth and power inevitably brings. The checks on power and the rule of law, that were constructed since the founding of this nation, have been systematically dismantled by the political elite on behalf of the financiers, as described in Glenn Greenwald’s new book, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful”. It can no longer be excused or ignored. And like Edison experimenting with hundreds of filament materials until he found one that would burn bright for the longest, the occupiers must seek to find the demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience that will burn the brightest for the longest in the mind of the public.