If I am now standing on Broadway in Manhattan I cannot immediately be on the Miracle Mile in Chicago. I must first be in a taxi, then at an airport, then on a plane, then at another airport, then in another taxi and finally in downtown Chicago – and that is assuming I take the fastest route. Likewise, if I am 28 now I cannot be 30 or 15 tomorrow. I could be 29, but the possibility of changing ages from one day to the next only happens once a year.
In space and in time we understand the idea of the “adjacent possible” and even see it as obvious. Change happens incrementally and, even if we can conceive of a radically altered state, we realize that there are several steps we must pass through to reach it.
However, as the subject of change becomes more complex – a city, a country, a culture – we forget about the concept of the adjacent possible and suddenly believe that radical change can happen from one moment to the next: elect the right president and a generally conservative and striated society will become progressive and egalitarian, enact the right law and get soft money out of politics, amend the Constitution and bring about racial equality. It is not a fluke that the election of President Obama, the passage of McCain-Feingold, and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did not bring about their intended outcomes in the short term. In complex systems, radical change cannot happen if one piece changes while others remain the same.
Small change in the short term, however, does not negate big change in the long term. The amendments passed in 1865-70 ending slavery and granting African-Americans the rights of citizens made it possible for a black man to be elected president 140 years later. What was previously impossible becomes commonplace, and by the time the change occurs it often does not seem so radical because of the many intermediary steps that brought society to that point.
From this perspective it was always unreasonable to expect digital technology to bring immediate radical change. By the same token, it is reasonable to expect that the changes wrought by technology in the short term will merely extend the previous reality: repressive regimes will use digital technology to repress, criminals will use digital technology to commit crimes, attention-seekers will use technology to seek attention.
Yet we are also seeing dramatic changes, where the incremental steps of change are happening much faster than in previous eras. So far, we are seeing this mainly in the realm of economics. In a world where news is digitized and available for free through a digital network, people will not want to pay for news. In that world it is less likely that a news company will stay in business. In a world where music is digitized and available for free through a digital network, people will not want to pay for music. In that world it is less likely that a music company will stay in business. We wanted global democracy and we got BitTorrent.
This is not to say that increasing democratization is not possible, only that it is one of a variety of outcomes that are still distant. I am by no means a skeptic, but I do not believe that a dramatic increase in democracy is even in the adjacent possible, we are still several incremental steps away… which means we are actually closer to a future in which technology extends the status quo.
Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist whose idea I am almost certainly bastardizing here, came up with the idea of the adjacent possible as a way to explain increasing biological complexity over time. As soon as the first amino acid existed, it became more likely that a slight change in that amino acid would create another type of organic chemical, “as actual molecules are formed, new adjacent possibles come into existence and old ones disappear”.
However, unlike molecules, we humans have conscious agency. We can see a number of futures that technology could help us achieve. As long as we are not pure determinists we believe that we have some ability to influence those outcomes. But that does not mean change is imminent, it means we need to build out into adjacent possibles now available to us, realizing the incremental steps that lead to radical change.
What are the incremental steps towards the “great potential” of digital technology? Is it increasing penetration mobile rates? Bringing down the cost of processing power? Building global norms for openness on the Internet? Ensuring net neutrality? These are all potentially important and there are likely more besides. According to Kauffman, “what becomes Actual can acausally change what becomes Possible and what becomes Possible can acausally change what becomes Actual,” so our idea of the digital possible will play a role in determining the digital actual that is yet to be.