The Adjacent Possible and the Invention of Email

By Deane Barker on June 19, 2012

Return to Sender: An Indian man claimed to have invented email as a 14-year-old.  When this claim became widely known, a furor erupted among the old-school computer pioneers of the 60s and 70s.

Shiva’s chorus of doubters had been young men — a fraternity of sorts — when they’d started using the ARPANET, and now here was some interloper they’d never heard of taking credit for their work. And the more these geeks, who saw themselves as the true fathers of e-mail, dug into Shiva’s story, the more enraged they became.

The entire article is an interesting dissection of the controversy, but — perhaps more importantly — it underscores the fact that inventions are rarely born in isolation.  Who “invented” email?  It’s hard to say — email as we know it is massive collision of dozens of ideas.  At what point did some combination of those ideas coalesce enough to be called “email,” and when that happened, who can claim to have invented it?

The idea is well-articulated in a book called”Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” which I read earlier this year, and which ranks among the most important books I’ve read in the last decade.  In it, Steven Johnson talks about “The Adjacent Possible,” which is the notion that any current idea or invention is adjacent to another one, and there might be just one key that makes it turn the corner from Thing A into Thing B.

And such is the case with email.  Email as Shiva claimed to invent it was sort of operating in some forms prior to that.

Haigh then laid out a point-by-point takedown of Shiva’s claims. E-mail was created in 1978? “Mail features became common on the timesharing computers of the late 1960s,” the professor scolded. “MIT is a strong contender for the first place where this happened.” He went on to note that the first computer-to-computer message exchange took place over the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET—the Pentagon-funded underpinning of the modern Internet that enabled hundreds of computer programming students to access government-owned supercomputers from satellite sites across the country in the ’60s and ’70s. Citing Janet Abbate’s 1999 book Inventing the Internet, Haigh reminded the group that network mail was a “killer application” … in 1971.

It could be that Shiva’s version of email was “the adjacent possible” to the version that ARPANET users were working with in 1971.  If this is true  (I honestly have no idea) , then can he claim to have “invented” it?

If this interests you, watch Matt Ridley’s TED talk on “idea sex” and Kirby Ferguson’s video series “Everything is a Remix.”  When ideas collide, new ideas emerge, and who “owns” those?

Someone once asked me “who invented the Internet”?  I found myself confused into silence about all the different ways I might try to answer that.

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