“Serendipity” Three

In a March 2006 op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times, William McKeen argued that “in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered.”

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find - with an irritating hit or miss here and there - exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding… Looking for something and being surprised by what you find - even if it’s not what you set out looking for - is one of life’s great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.

In response to which, Steven Johnson wrote a blog post, entitled “CAN WE PLEASE KILL THIS MEME NOW,” arguing that the Web is “the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”

It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books….

I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.

I mention these because today brings a new perspective to the serendipity discussion: Damon Darlin’s piece in The New York Times, which declares that “the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”

Ah, the techies say, no worries. We have Facebook and Twitter, spewing a stream of suggestions about what to read, hear, see and do. We come to depend on it to lead us to the funny article on TheOnion.com or the roving food cart serving goat curry. It’s useful.

But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes. It won’t deliver that magic moment of discovery that we imagine occurred when Elvis Presley first heard the blues, or when Michael Jackson followed Fred Astaire’s white spats across the dance floor.

“Serendipity” is a nice word. And it’s one I’ve done some thinking about, as well. But it seems to be the wrong one in the context of the pieces above. The real anxiety trembling in those treatments has little to do with chance, as “serendipity” suggests; it has to do, rather, with the fear of cognitive isolationism. The digital age—Steven Johnson is absolutely right—isn’t, as Darlin suggests, “stamping out serendipity”; what it is doing, though (as Darlin also suggests), is fostering a networked approach to knowledge. We’re increasingly understanding the world through information obtained through our friends and associates. We’re increasingly choosing closed networks over more open ones, small networks over broader ones. Which is to say, we’re increasingly clique-ifying cognition itself.

That, I think, is the danger. And that, I think, is the fear we’re really expressing when we find ourselves exalting serendipity.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.