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.

Will Wright’s Serendipity Machine


In a recent interview, game maker Will Wright shared some ideas his upcoming game HiveMind will be built around:

If we had that much situational awareness about you and at the same time we were building this very high-level map of the world, and I don’t just mean where Starbuck’s is, but all sorts of things like historical footnotes and people you might want to meet. I started thinking about games that we can build that would allow us to triangulate you in that space and build that deep situational awareness. There will be all types of games, but the key will be focusing the experiences, including multiplayer, within the real world and away from the fictional world that games currently invest in.

To me that sounds like he’s building a massive serendipity machine, not unlike the net machines and pokkecon in Bruce Sterling’s short story Maneki Neko. Should this work, then it would be more than a game. A real game changer, so to speak.

Cognitive dissonance, systemic thinking, serendipity & neoteny


I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think, and communicate, and the implications.

As you can gather from this, and the headline, this whole post is going to be way meta, so proceed at your own risk. Also, it’s mostly an idea sketch for myself, largely untested. Your thoughts are welcome.

Cognitive dissonance is good

Here’s a hypothesis: Cognitive dissonance is good.

Cognitive dissonance it the internal conflict an individuum faces when holding conflicting ideas simultaneously, or when its own actions don’t match its ideals:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.

So if we all strive to reduce cognitive dissonance, why would it be good, you ask? My theory is this: Cognitive dissonance helps us not to reduce complexity. It helps prevent smugness and it helps feeling right all too easily. It helps us feel uncomfortable with ourselves.

If we keep doubting, and thus re-evaluating, ourselves, we can become a better person.

In day-to-day life, it can be hard to keep oneself from justifying our own behavior without going around the bend. An example? I like the notion of organic food, of buying locally, of rewarding “good” (think ethics, quality, production process etc) companies over “bad” (cheap, non-fair trade, non-sustainable etc) companies. I like being eco conscious and supporting free and open source software and free culture. And, and, and. Yet, often times – nay: mostly – I buy very much non-organic food, buy clothes off big chains that I can safely assume were produced under barely humane conditions, I fly so much that my carbon footprint is insane, and I buy all kinds of electronics that are in no way ecofriendly or even ecologically acceptable. And yes, I use a Mac and all kinds of proprietory software. Only if I occasionally remind myself of these things is there a decent chance that I change my behavior, step by step. It’s what keeps me on the right track.

I’m not going to ask you, but you might want to ask yourself: Where does your behavior not match your rhetoric?

So being honest to oneself can be hard. Of course things get much harder if you also foster cognitive dissonance in others. In an ideal world, it’d be enlightening. In reality it’s annoying at best, rude at worst. But hey, feeling superior and smug has never suited anyone well. I guess what I’m saying is: If I insult you that way, I don’t try to be rude, just maybe a little mean. Also, it means I like you enough to care, and enough to risk a friendship. Sometimes it’s good to be a pain in the ass.

Systems, trajectories, serendipity

There’s something to be said for different types of thinking. One way that I find particularly helpful for both our networked world in general and for my work in particular is what I’d call systemic thinking. Considering systems, parts of systems, connections. If thing A changes, what are the implications for things B and C, what are the collaterals? Also, what are the driving forces behind the players involved, what are their agendas?

Once you have the system visualized and know how things are connected, you know where you work from. You can then define a trajectory: A vision, a vector and a goal. (Joi Ito has written quite a bit about trajectories in leadership.) This is very different than more traditional planning methods that would put together a roadmap with step-by-step instructions, milestones etc. It’s much, much more fluid. You have a rough game plan and direction, and plenty of lee way. This also requires you trust your folks much more to know what they’re doing, which is a good thing.

Then you get to a more tactical level. When your game plan consists mainly of a goal and a trajectory, then there’s plenty of room for randomness, for serendipity. Embrace it. This is more than tactics, it’s almost a question of philosophy. It might take you off track for a while, and maybe your vector changes, or maybe not. As long as you have the overall goal and vision in mind, it’s all good.


Joi Ito wrote about innovation in the NY Times as well as the unabridged version on his blog. He’s also the person through which I learned about the concept of neoteny, which I find very appealing. With Joi’s words:

Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributions in adulthood. Childlike attributes include learning, idealism, experimentation, wonder, and creativity. In our rapidly changing world, not only do we need to continue to behave more like children – we can teach our children to retain those attributes that will allow them to be the world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.

So there you have it. All these things I strive for in my mental model. Oftentimes that doesn’t work just yet, but these are some basic principles I try to let me guide.

Pre-Social Networks


The New York Times on the New Art of Flickr

The New Scientist touched on a fascinating concept: Pre-Social Networks that would foster serendipity by matching people based on their interests and their current (or even future) location.

Imagine heading to a café, and your phone recognizes where you are going and lets both you and someone at that café know that you have certain interests in common. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hobby, a former employer, a common friend, or even an ex girlfriend for that matter.

It’s the chance of massively increasing an element of serendipity that’s incredibly powerful.

There are huge potential implications here, with privacy only being a small chunk. We’re talking changing social dynamics, ways of meeting peers with less friction, less awkwardness. Mapping where people of certain interests hang out. Etc, etc, etc.

Thinking about it like that, maybe privacy isn’t just a small chunk of this after all.

And yet. All this by basically matching the data we already codified online: Facebook social graph, Twitter social graph, interests based on links we share, location by phone GPS and Foursquare checkins. Maybe throw a few extras for more richness, more flavor, like Last.fm music preferences and pull from Tripit which places you like to travel to, both being strong social connectors.

Not sure which of these data sets we’d actually want to match, and who we’d want to match them. It’s a strong, powerful notion, though, and one we’d better think about sooner than later.

Image by Thomas Hawk, some rights reserved (CC by-nc)