the "adjacent possible," capacities, and How We Got to Now

I read Stephen Johnson’s How We Got to Now this weekend, a book that examines six technological trajectories: glass, cooling, sound recording, clean water, clocks, and lighting. These histories cut across disciplinary and social areas following what Johnson calls the “hummingbird effect” (after the co-evolution of hummingbirds and flowers). These are not technological determinist arguments but rather accounts of how intersections among innovations open up unexpected possibilities. This is the “adjacent possible,” a term Johnson borrows from biologist Stuart Kauffman, though here Johnson is applying it to technological rather than biological evolution. If there is a central thesis to Johnson’s book it is “the march of technology expands the space of possibility around us, but how we explore that space is up to us” (226).

Overall, it’s an interesting book, well-written as you’d expect, with many curious narratives. I was especially interested in the glass chapter. However, I was taken from the start, where Johnson begins with a reference to Manuel DeLanda’s robot historian from War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, where DeLanda suggests that a robot would have a very different perspective on our history than a human. Johnson agrees and takes up this challenge, writing “I have tried to tell the story of these innovations from something like the perspective of DeLanda’s robot historian. If the lightbulb could write a history of the past three hundred years, it too would look very different” (2).  In other words, Johnson suggests something that is akin to a kind of alien phenomenological approach. I can’t say that he necessarily delivers on that. I’m not sure that silicon dioxide’s view of its becoming glass through its interactions with humans over the past few thousand years would make much, if any, sense to us. However, the speculation could be interesting.

The glass chapter offers a couple interesting twists. It addressing the development of optics–reading glasses, microscopes, telescopes. It jumps to the industrial development of fiberglass as a building material, and then joins the two in fiber optics. However, Johnson takes a sidestep back to mirrors, where he takes up Lewis Mumford’s argument that the mirror initiated a new conception of the self and self-consciousness among Europeans. Again, not determined, but opened an adjacent possibility space.

You can see how all of these innovations come together in social media spaces. No server farms without cooling. No computer chips without super clean water or quartz timing. No Internet without fiber optics and digital audio communication. Throw in the mirror effect and one gets Selfie City, for example.

Johnson’s use of the adjacent possible works well enough for him, but for me it still leaves too many agency questions open. I prefer the more DeLanda-inspired notion of capacities or the Latourian idea of how we are “made to act.” Still Johnson does make a convincing argument for the ways in which seemingly unrelated events conspire to create a new opportunity, where a “slow hunch” (to use a term from one of his earlier works) suddenly becomes realizable because of a discovery somewhere or a change in economic conditions somewhere else. I suppose one might think of it as a nod to kairos.

I want to keep this in mind for the particular questions that concern me around the intersections of digital rhetoric and higher education. Maybe I have a slow hunch too, which does seem strange in the rapid turnover of digital innovation. (And when I say “I have” I don’t mean to suggest others are not seeing something similar, either.) Johnson points out how Edison at first imagined people using the gramophone to record audio letters to send to one another and Bell imagined people using the telephone to listen to orchestras play live music. The reversal seems funny from our perspective, though today, the process of “softwarization” (to use Manovich’s term) means that we have smartphones that combine all of these activities. Watch a video or video chat or watch a live event or record a video and share it with others. What happens when classrooms become softwarized, which they obviously already have? Are there analogous misunderstandings?

The slow hunch relies on a rather subtle misunderstanding about the kind of people that digital technologies mediate. Our expectations about digital learning presume interiorized subjects of the sort that occupied the possibility space of modern life, maybe starting with the mirror.  Our dissatisfaction with digital pedagogy fundamentally lies in our awareness that we do not act the same way online as we do in class, and we don’t even act the same way in class anymore because of digital media. We put the lion’s share of our energy into trying to make digital pedagogy conform to its predecessor, in part perhaps because we share in the rather fantastical belief that the virtual world is immaterial and can be made to be like anything.

I share in Johnson’s rejection of techno-determinism, though I have a more complex vision of agency than he is willing to share in his book. It does make sense to me that we need to explore the possibility spaces here. As with many of the stories in this book, what comes about will likely be shaped by economic realities as much as anything else.  However, if we start by investigating the different kinds of subjects we might become and then imagining how those subjects would learn, we start to illuminate those capacities, those possibility spaces, in ways that might be taken up more materially and economically.

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