Serendipity

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Serendipity is a great word, a fantastic notion. It’s also a word that gets over-used, or maybe rather: wrongly used. So I enjoyed that Ian Leslie explored the idea of serendipity a bit and gave some background, too – before starting to speculate on the internet’s negative influence on serendipity.

Let’s back up. Serendipity is a notoriously hard to explain word. Many languages, including German, don’t even have a decent translation as far as I can tell. Leslie neatly explains serendipity as a “subtle blend of chance and agency”, and quote Horace Walpole’s explanation taken from a letter in 1754: In the tale of The Three Princes of Serendip, the princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Leslie points out that oftentimes when we refer to serendipity we focus on the chance and neglect the sagacity involved.

Right on.

Then he jumps straight into a sweeping critique of the internet that draws heavily from the Filter Bubble argument – the notion that the web and its filtering/targeting mechanisms increasingly shows us only what is compatible with what we already believe, cutting out dissenting arguments and news outside our immediate fields of interest.

The Filter Bubble argument isn’t weak as such. If you were to exptrapolate from, say, the last 5 years and project a linear development in terms of targeting, filtering and social search, then yes, we might end up reading only what we already know. Luckily, that’s stupid not an advisable thing to do. Instead, it helps to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Yes, internet search often gives us very targeted information, cutting out longer searches which would have provided more ample opportunity to happen upons things we were not looking for. However, that’s only half the story (or less).

For one, the way we consume the web isn’t as straight forward as this. Social search and discovery online doesn’t just by way of receiving a link after typing in a dedicated search into the Google search box. Rather, increasingly we follow others who we trust to share interesting things with us. “Interesting”, in this case, implying an active initial choice by ourselves. Do we want to receive input by people who read the same things we read, or those who follow different information flows? Once we settle on a person that way, we receive a diverse, or at least unplanned and at least potentially serendipitous stream of thoughts, ideas, sources.

My main point of disagreement, however, is this: While the author points out that “in the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind” (Louis Pasteur), he still claims that the internet has evolved to a point where we don’t face unexpected input anymore, but restrict our usage of the web to what we know, the path well-trodden.

(He goes there by way of a romanticised book-shopping experience: The book jackets [in the book store] shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands.” Maybe someone should point out to him that apart from small independent book stores those shelves and tables are paid for and stocked by big publishing companies who couldn’t care less about flirting spines and caressing your hands.)

What Leslie entirely fails to grasp here it that the online search/consumption behavior is only one side of the coin of many aspects of how we search out and encounter information. We get some input online, parts in predictable, controlled ways, some slightly more random. We have offline conversations and encounters, too. Quite likely, other media channels pay some part. There’s professional input streams, too, the stuff we read for work and learn about at conferences. There’s more.

And in all these cases, the question is: What happens when a piece of information hits a prepared mind?

No one – not today and not tomorrow – could restrict their information consumption online to a degree where no piece of stray information wouldn’t trigger the mental processes of new information impacting a prepared mind. A slightly faster search won’t change that.

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