A friend’s blog post introduced me to a new term: the adjacent possible. What a rich phrase — a field ripe for dreaming. That all kinds of possibilities are just next to me, possibly even within view.
The term comes from theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, who talked about what might happen in biology to precipitate life. But the way Steven Johnson explains it in a Wall Street Journal article a while back ~ “The Genius of the Tinkerer” ~ the adjacent possible is more a room opening off of a single door, that opens into several more rooms off of that first room, and then builds exponentially off of those rooms. Each subsequent place you end up — or new area of exploration, or new combination of amino acids — makes possible so much more: infinite possibility, adjacent to the ‘now.’
Digression: I used to see futures. Plural. Like a map of possibility spreading out from the point of decision where I was at that moment. I could actually see the lines that led away from where I stood, both literally & figuratively. Now, my life is so much more tangled and its threads so tightly woven, I seem to see only knots that snarl and ravel.
So the idea of all the futures that become possible as we move through the decisions that mark our days, our hours, sometimes even our minutes…? This entrances me. I want to once again see clear pathways from this decision, this month, this place and this now. I want maps. But to map these rooms of possibility is impossible — that’s the point about possibility; you can’t predict it clearly, precisely. You have to just keep going on, making use of the resources where you find yourself.
This is a spider silk cape, woven from spider silk on a loom in Madagascar, according to the old ways of Madagascar weavers. Had we retained this knowledge (in the world outside of Madagascar), who knows what ‘rooms’ of possibility we might have entered? If spider silk can be used to create a lush silk rug (like the one above) — and the spiders released — what does that mean to the future of silk? To the billions and probably trillions of dead silkworms?
It’s hard, I realise, to get too excited about a dead silkworm. But the possibilities in spider silk? The brilliance of the gold? The wondering on what colours various spiders’ silk threads are? There is so much in the world about which we know so very little. And lives — even very small ones, but maybe our own, as well — depend on these things we don’t know. Embedded in this term ~ adjacent possible ~ is the idea that there may well be answers just around the corner, right next door, maybe. We just have to keep our eyes open to… well, possibility. And build with what we find.
I have to agree w/ Johnson: ‘Ideas are works of bricolage.” And the layers possible? And the things we create? Who knows ~