Steven Johnson, Kevin Kelly on Building Off Others’ Ideas

“Adjacent Possible” and other ways of thinking about collaboration
Here’s how an October 2010 interview in Wired begins: “Say the word ‘inventor’ and most people think of a solitary genius toiling in a basement. But two ambitious new books on the history of innovation — by Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly, both longtime Wired contributors — argue that great discoveries typically spring not from individual minds but from the hive mind.

“In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Johnson draws on seven centuries of scientific and technological progress, from Gutenberg to GPS, to show what sorts of environments nurture ingenuity. He finds that great creative milieus, whether MIT or Los Alamos, New York City or the World Wide Web, are like coral reefs — teeming, diverse colonies of creators who interact with and influence one another. Seven centuries are an eyeblink in the scope of Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, which looks back over some 50,000 years of history and peers nearly that far into the future.”

In the dual interview, Kelly notes that “It’s amazing that the myth of the lone genius has persisted for so long, since simultaneous invention has always been the norm, not the exception. Anthropologists have shown that the same inventions tended to crop up in prehistory at roughly similar times, in roughly the same order, among cultures on different continents that couldn’t possibly have contacted one another.”

Johnson concurs, saying, “I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity — there’s far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.”

Says Kelly: “I think there are a lot of ideas today that are ahead of their time. Human cloning, autopilot cars, patent-free law — all are close technically but too many steps ahead culturally. Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.”

Johnson mentions scientist Stuart Kauffman and that Kauffman calls this need to build off of other innovations the “adjacent possible.” Johnson explains Kauffman’s theory this way: “At any given moment in evolution — of life, of natural systems, or of cultural systems — there’s a space of possibility that surrounds any current configuration of things. Change happens when you take that configuration and arrange it in a new way. But there are limits to how much you can change in a single move.”

In addition to the Wired interview, Johnson explained his ideas in a recent Wall Street Journal essay called “The Genius of the Tinkerer.” It was adapted from his new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, which came out in October.

3 Comments On: Steven Johnson, Kevin Kelly on Building Off Others’ Ideas

  • Chris Owen | November 18, 2010

    This is a great thought process and definitely makes you think. It’s those people who “discover” things at the right time who get all the credit. Or even those who discover and have to wait on the world to be ready.

    Like E=Mc2 sitting for decades before anyone new what to do with it.

  • Viktor O. Ledenyov | November 21, 2010

    We agree with the authors that there are a lot of innovative ideas and novel devices today that ahead of their time, for example the 1024 QRNG_MFQ chipset. Steve Woznyak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. made an interesting presentation on history of innovation at Apple Computer Inc. during his visit to Oxford University, Oxford, U.K. (http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/). The invention of Apple One, Apple Two computers and most recently iPhone, iPad computing devices is an example of innovation, when lone genius entrepreneurs decided to collaborate with open networks to create the novel computing technologies and wireless communication devices (http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/centres/entrepreneurship/svco/pages/default.aspx).

    Viktor O. Ledenyov, Dimitri O. Ledenyov, Ukraine

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