I think a good corollary to the idea of the adjacent possible is that of autocatalysis. Continuing the discussion of a technology’s diffusion, Jared Diamond explains,

Because technology begets more technology, the importance of an invention’s diffusion potentially exceeds the importance of the original invention. Technology’s history exemplifies what is termed an autocatalytic process: that is, one that speeds up at a rate that increases with time, because the process catalyzes1 itself. The explosion of technology since the Industrial Revolution impresses us today, but the medieval explosion was equally impressive compared with that of the Bronze Age, which in turn dwarfed that of the Upper Paleolithic.2

One reason why technology tends to catalyze itself is that advances depend upon previous mastery of simpler problems. For example, Stone Age farmers did not proceed directly to extracting and working iron, which requires high-temperature furnaces. Instead, iron ore metallurgy grew out of thousands of years of human experience with natural outcrops of pure metals soft enough to be hammered into shape without heat (copper and gold). It also grew out of thousands of years of development of simple furnaces to make pottery, and then to extract copper ores and work copper alloys (bronzes) that do not require as high temperatures as does iron…3

Note the many first-order combinations and subsequent recombinations were required before metalworking can emerge as an innovation from the adjacent possible. Metalworking itself becomes a first-order combination later enabling the printing press.

…[W]hy did printing spread explosively in medieval Europe after Gutenberg printed his Bible in A.D. 1455, but not after that unknown printer printed the Phaistos disk4 in 1700 B.C.? The explanation is partly that medieval European printers were able to combine six technological advances, most of which were unavailable to the maker of the Phaistos disk. Of those advances—in paper, movable type, metallurgy, presses, inks, and scripts—paper and the idea of movable type reached Europe from China. Gutenberg’s development of typecasting from metal dies, to overcome the potentially fatal problem of nonuniform type size, depended on many metallurgical developments… Gutenberg’s press was derived from screw presses in use for making wine and olive oil, while his ink was an oil-based improvement on existing inks. The alphabetic scripts that medieval Europe inherited from three millennia of alphabet development lent themselves to printing with movable type, because only a few dozen letter forms had to be cast, as opposed to the thousands of signs required for Chinese writing.5

In all six respects, the maker of the Phaistos disk had access to much less powerful technologies to combine into a printing system than did Gutenberg. The disk’s writing medium was clay, which is much bulkier and heavier than paper. The metallurgical skills, inks, and presses of 1700 B.C. Crete were more primitive than those of A.D. 1455 Germany, so the disk had to be punched by hand rather than by cast movable type locked into a metal frame, inked, and pressed. The disk’s script was a syllabary with more signs, of more complex form, than the Roman alphabet used by Gutenberg. As a result, the Phaistos disk’s printing technology was much clumsier, and offered fewer advantages over writing by hand, than Gutenberg’s printing press. In addition to all those technological drawbacks, the Phaistos disk was printed at a time when knowledge of writing was confined to a few palace or temple scribes. Hence there was little demand for the disk maker’s beautiful product, and little incentive to invest in making the dozens of hand punches required. In contrast, the potential mass market for printing in medieval Europe induced numerous investors to lend money to Gutenberg. 6

Beyond the adjacent possible enabling a first-article invention, many other recombinations must be in place for innovation to spread within a culture and then diffuse into other societies. The adjacent possible defines the bounds of the possible, and autocatalysis accelerates the innovation’s growth, ensuring success. History is littered with good ideas that just never took off. How many were one catalyst away from widespread adoption?

  1. Causes or accelerates a reaction ↩︎

  2. Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 2011. Kindle link ↩︎

  3. Kindle link ↩︎

  4. Earlier in the book, Diamond described the discovery of a mysterious clay disk that depicts a 45-sign script otherwise unseen in Crete. The disk was also printed, rather than being handwritten. Kindle link ↩︎

  5. Kindle link ↩︎

  6. Kindle link ↩︎