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If The Internet Killed Serendipity, It Probably Never Existed Anyway

Serendipity in the city
Serendipity in the city
I have a friend who for years refused to get a mobile phone. Eventually he succumbed, driven by his corporate overlords who wanted to be able to reach him. One of the reasons he said he didn’t want a mobile phone was that their proliferation had destroyed any chances of serendipitous encounters. We used to bump into people on the street, he said, and catch a movie or a drink or a show, but now everything is digitally preordained. We just call and arrange and leave nothing to fate.
The sentiment that the digital world, and more specifically the Internet, has killed serendipity pops up every now and again, the handwringing often preempted by Google announcing some algorithm changes or with Facebook introducing “frictionless sharing.”
In 2009, Damon Darlin declared in “The New York Times” that the digital age "is stamping out serendipity." We used to go to people's houses and discover music in record collections or books on shelves. Darlin argued that our social streams of Facebook “likes” are not a replacement for serendipity, but instead group think, filtered and vetted by friends who had presumably been selected (by us) for their shared tastes.

This year, Eli Pariser wrote a book on the increasingly personalized Web called “The Filter Bubble.” Its main premise was that the Internet, fueled by algorithms, was limiting our horizons. Tech giants like Google were increasingly personalizing our search results, and the result would be that we would discover less. Our past consumer preferences would define the things we discovered (and then bought) until our true, variegated selves were replaced by bland caricatures, our personalities defined by the things we had once liked on Facebook. If I once expressed a preference for Jo Nesbo on Amazon, I would be forever stuck in a world of Scandinavian crime fiction. Even though I may have moved on (or at least wanted to move on) to fantasy novels, the Internet would do little to help me make that leap.

Social networks were also dangerous, warned Pariser. There was little serendipity or discovery there, but just an echo chamber with our friends (who we had presumably selected because they thought like us) all sharing the same content. This was a far cry from the cosmopolitan, eclectic Internet ripe for discovery that we once imagined. Where once we might stumble across a strange and life-changing tome in a tumbledown book shop, now we would just buy what Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, told us to buy.
In the same vein, an interesting new piece from a German academic, Miriam Meckel, considers the algorithm-powered world we live in:
It’s a life in the rear view mirror. The algorithms which compute all these recommendations and suggestions for us are forever stuck in the past, as they base their calculations on our actions in times foregone. Through the analysis and evaluation of this data, the algorithm creates a more or less linear projection into the future of all we ever did, desired and loved. This projection may be quite accurate, since man is a creature of habit. What we once took a liking to, we will probably like all our lives. Without serendipity’s intervention, the algorithms we created may force us into a never-ending time-warp, dwelling forever in the status quo of our own preferences and desires.
Serendipity is involved when we enter a book store and stumble on a random book that we would have never read, had it not been in the right place at the perfect time. It is serendipity, when we browse through a newspaper report and suddenly find ourselves riveted by its content even though we were neither interested nor familiar with the topic only minutes ago.
It is rare to read an argument about the Internet and serendipity without an anecdote about a book store (usually dusty) and the verb “to stumble.” They are sentiments that make up what I would call the Imagined Analogue Past. This from a review I wrote of Pariser’s book:
While not exactly a techno-pessimist, Pariser falls into the techno-pessimist’s trap of the Imagined Analogue Past. It is a rose-colored world that always forms the backdrop to books about the effects of the Internet. A world without digital distractions, with enlightening serendipitous encounters, where civic-minded news producers made sure we saw reports about famine in distant lands. In the Imagined Analogue Past we all had meaningful offline friendships, devoid of any superficiality.
If we have a tendency to romanticize this pre-digital past, do we somehow do the same with these serendipitous encounters? In a fascinating talk about serendipity, cities, and the Internet, Ethan Zuckerman looks at the origins of the word:
Serendipity, at first glance, looks like the positive side of unintended consequences, the happy accident. But that’s not what the term meant, at least originally. The word was coined by Horace Walpole, an 18th century British aristocrat, 4th Earl of Oxford, novelist, architect and gossip. He’s remembered primarily for his letters, 48 volumes worth, which offer a perspective on what the world looked like through an aristocrat’s eyes.

In a letter written in 1754, Walpole tells his correspondent, Horace Mann, about a unexpected and helpful discovery he made, due to his deep knowledge of heraldry. To explain the experience, he refers to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the titular characters were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Walpole’s neologism is a pat on the back – he’s congratulating himself both for a clever discovery and for his sagacity, which permitted the discovery.

It is the “sagacity” that is key. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was accidental, but it was the result of months of groundwork, observation, and knowledge. Louis Pasteur once said that “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” So if we take a more scientific approach, serendipity doesn't exist in a vacuum: what we stumble upon has a context and it isn’t perhaps as random as it may seem.
The argument goes that the “serendipity” we find on Twitter and Facebook isn’t true serendipity because the content recommended to us has been selected by our friends, who we have presumably filtered for interests, tastes, and political preferences. Yes, we might find unusual and unexpected things, but they will all be within the parameters of our friends’ interests and our own expressed preferences. But is that really so different to our past lives in the pre-Internet world?
Strip away the nostalgia and maybe our moments of serendipitous discovery before the Internet are much more rational than we would like to think. We didn't stumble across that book -- it was there because the librarian put it there because the Dewey system of classification told her to. That fabled dusty book shop was recommended to us by a friend, who we were friends with because they liked the same sorts of books (and dusty book shops). Those stories that caught our eyes in newspapers were there because of the business models and limitations of print; the design of newspapers was based on rational and commercial decisions and editors made those choices for myriad reasons, most of them far more banal than seeking our enlightenment.
Perhaps in the past, we discovered a great new band, a replacement support act for a band we were going to see. We didn’t, however, end up at that club by chance but rather because they played the music we liked or we were taken there by friends with similar music tastes: just like in the Internet era, our discoveries were still taking place within parameters. Maybe once we bumped into a stranger who changed our lives -- a moment of serendipity, as we remember it. But was it? Perhaps the clothes we were wearing, or the way we wore our hair, indicated our preferences and drew us closer to that person (there were signals before Facebook). Birds of a feather flock together and all that. Just like then, we chose our friends because they liked the same things as we did.
In the Imagined Analogue Past, however, we tend to ascribe something mystical to our moments of discovery as they often represent something momentous for us: a long and happy marriage, children, a love affair with a certain genre of literature, music, or film. The language we use to describe these encounters is heavily laden with fate: we bump into life-changing people, we discover music, we stumble upon intellectual enlightenment, we find love. Serendipity, of course, is much more poignant looking back than it ever was at the time. There are plenty of random things that happen in our lives that go unnoticed, but we tend to ascribe values of serendipity to things that have more meaning to us later. We want our own origin stories to be magical and not mundane.
It’s hard to find many people who don’t think that their intellectual horizons have been broadened by the Internet. Or more specifically, those who think that, these days, they discover less. There are, after all, online spaces that represent that record fair or that book store. Take musical discovery: I rarely listen to the radio radio any more but I constantly listen to Radio Paradise, a listener-supporter radio based in California. I discover plenty of music that way, or by wandering through MySpace, or recommendations from friends. As a teenager I got into the Velvet Underground after hearing “Heroin” on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Doors film. If I were a teenager with the Internet, I would have discovered the Velvets much sooner.
The “loss of serendipity” argument -- often made by people who wax lyric about the joys of human-to-human interactions -- actually takes a rather dismal view of humanity and puts little faith in the capacity for humans to seek enlightenment on their own, without the help or hinder of machines. It is also an argument steeped in what Evgeny Morozov has termed “Internet-centrism.” Cyber-utopians and cyber-skeptics are similar in one major respect: they both ascribe too much power to the transformative power of the Internet, to the detriment of all other social, political, or economic factors.
Fears about the dark arts of algorithms are also broadly consistent with other techno-panics in history: about the printed book, the telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter. As the economic historian Joel Mokyr has argued, it is felt that “new technology dehumanizes, turns people into slaves of their own technology.” Now we are worried we will become slaves to algorithms.
That doesn’t mean, though, there is nothing to be cautious about. Meckel’s conclusions are sensible: we need a public discourse about the increasingly personalized world we are living in, as consumers we need to be aware of what personalization strategies are being used and given the chance to opt out.
She also suggests that “we also need what we haven’t thought of looking for yet.” That, I suppose, will be the challenge: how to engineer randomness and how to ensure that our webspaces are not echo chambers and are places that enable enlightenment and discovery instead of curtailing it. Engineered randomness sounds oxymoronic, but perhaps less so if we accept that pure randomness and pure serendipity never really existed anyway.
In Zuckerman’s talk, he points out that even in cities -- those supposed engines of serendipity -- we are still creatures of habit in our “pattern[s] of home, work, and hobby." Even in the cities, there is still a predictability to our lives. "When we talk about cities, we recognize that they're not always the cosmopolitan melting pots we dream they are," he writes.
Taking the lessons of discovery in a city, Zuckerman suggests a way forward online:
One of the reasons curation is such a helpful strategy for wandering is that it reveals community maxima. It can be helpful to know that Times Square is the most popular tourist destination in New York if only so we can avoid it. But knowing where Haitian taxi cab drivers go for goat soup is often useful data on where the best Haitian food is to be found. Don’t know if you like Haitian food? Try a couple of the local maxima – the most important places to the Haitian community – and you’ll be able to discern the answer to that question pretty quickly. It’s unlikely you dislike the food because it’s badly made, as it’s the favorite destination for that community – it’s more likely that you simply don’t like goat soup. (Oh well, more for me.) If you want to explore beyond the places your friends think are the most enjoyable, or those the general public thinks are enjoyable, you need to seek out curators who are sufficiently far from you in cultural terms and who’ve annotated their cities in their own ways.
It is serendipity, but it is cultivated serendipity. Speak to the people who claim that they have made plenty of unexpected discoveries on the Internet and they will usually tell you about a friend who always “posts lots of really cool stuff.”

If we accept that serendipity has always existed within the parameters of our lives, our preferences, our friends, then seeking out meaningful curators is one of our best bets at finding it online.