Adjacent possible

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. Johnson has a way of connecting events in the history of science and technology to tell interesting stories for a popular audience. I’m not sure how much of his narrative I really believe, but it’s entertaining.

One of the most interesting ideas Johnson emphasizes is the “adjacent possible”, a term coined by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman.

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.