Serendipity is alive and well on the Web


Aimlessly sifting through a few blogs the other day, I stumbled upon a link to an essay in the St. Petersburg Times - a newspaper that I rarely read - about how our coolly efficient, what-you-Google-is-what-you-get world is killing serendipity in our lives.

William McKeen, the author of the essay and chairman of the journalism department at the University of Florida, argues that the chance encounter has become an endangered species. ( news_pf/Perspective/The_ endangered_joy_of.shtml)

"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."

Unplanned moments of the type that enrich and reward our lives - hearing a thrilling new song on the radio, meeting a stranger's eyes and feeling that spark or simply browsing aimlessly through the library - are increasingly rare, McKeen argues.

"Technology undercuts serendipity," McKeen writes. "It makes it possible to direct our energies all in the name of saving time. Ironically, though, it seems that we are losing time - the meaningful time we once used to indulge ourselves in the related pleasures of search and discovery. We're efficient, but empty."

There's no doubt that random moments and chance discoveries enrich our lives. But is the Internet reducing such encounters, turning us into dull, efficient Google automatons?


True, Google is ruthlessly efficient. And true too, it's hard to meet a stranger's gaze from behind a computer screen. But the entire Internet is a chance encounter waiting to happen. Serendipity is just a click away.

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, put it this way on his blog (stevenberlin "Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere's exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture."

Using popular blog as an example, Johnson observes that "on their front door, we have a study of monkey drinking habits, a roadsite alert sign hacking project, a 'news of the weird' story about a German would-be suicide, a re-writing of Robinson Crusoe, a collection of vintage cartoons, a digital mapmaking tool, and so on and so on. And this eclecticism is what you get every day there.

"Now factor in reading a dozen other blogs of comparable range," he adds. "This is now the daily information intake for millions and millions of people around the world. Why isn't that an increase in serendipity?"

The answer is obvious: It is an increase in serendipity. And those who aren't finding random moments online simply aren't looking.

But others still aren't swayed.

"Once you create an engine - a machine - to produce serendipity, you destroy the essence of serendipity," blogger Nicholas Carr (roughtype. com) wrote in response to Johnson. "It becomes something expected rather than something unexpected. Looking for serendipity? Just follow these easy links!"

A fair point, but consider this: I wasn't looking for serendipity when I stumbled upon this debate. Nor was I expecting to find an idea for this column - yet a few chance mouse clicks and 500 words later, here we are.

What could be more serendipitous than that?

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