How did you land your dream job, discover your favourite musician, meet your significant other? Was it the result of an orchestrated, structured search process? Or was there at least a glimpse of something else involved – being at the right spot at the right time (and doing the right thing), going to an event you tried to avoid in the first place, taking a new way to work? That moment of coincidence, the one step towards the unexpected, has a name: Serendipity.
Serendipity is more than pure luck or even fate. In fact, it is a beautiful example for a word that does not have a proper equivalence in many other languages (check out the German “translation“). Ian Leslie explains the origin story of the word and defines it as a “blend of chance and agency”. Serendipity is an essential ingredient for Hollywood movies and novels as well as for scientific discoveries and innovation, and it spices up our daily life: Picking that one random book from a library shelf to find a quote that you will remember forever. Talking to a random stranger at a concert you don’t like, and all of a sudden enrolling in a lively discussion about music, that results in you discovering the spirit of brass music – and a new friendship. This is how we create our own stories that we eagerly share for years and decades.
A Frog in a Blender or: Where does the unexpected happen?
A natural environment for serendipity to occur, one would think, should be the depths of the world wide
web, where you can access content, interest group and people you wouldn’t be able to imagine in your wildest dreams. Thinking back to how “surfing the web” felt like in the 1990s, it was pure serendipity indeed. Starting with a simple search term in AltaVista, we would get lost in hypertext, click on random links that would lead us to a blog entry about ancient egypt, let us listen to an African radio station in real time, chat with a fisherman from Greenland and eventually stumble across a frog in a blender. Losing orientation and control formed the starting point for jaw-dropping discoveries.
But the “cyberspace” of the 1990s has little in common with the social networks, streaming services and video resources we carry around in our pockets these days. The structures and technologies of the semantic web have a significant impact on the serendipity of the web: It has become very hard to get lost.
It’s not easy to get lost on a calculated path
Just like a GPS-app on our smartphone that directs us to a pre-defined address and makes it unnecessary to peek into sidestreets or check a paper map and memorize the name of the neighborhood, applications provide us with push-information about what we might want to listen to, read or watch next. And more often than not, these suggestions make us stay on Youtube, Deezer or even Amazon – and feel happy about the “lucky coincidence” of having discovered “exactly the kind of thing we were subconsciously looking for”. But is a path that has been calculated by an algorithm, based on our past behaviour saved in cookies, real serendipity? Or is it rather a convenient way to navigate through our personal bubble in order to get more of what we already know and enjoy? Does it matter as long as we are happy with new discoveries?
Do we want to get out of our ivory tower?
One thing is certain about the ways we navigate the internet: We can browse it, but we cannot scan as we would scan a newspaper – overlooking but still noticing parts that we consider less relevant. Pages we do not land on online are not overlooked – they are completely invisible, even if they are just one click away.
And yet, there have always been countless different perspectives to look at one and the same thing, and even anticipatory theory will not change this – as long as we don’t forget about it. We are capable of forcing ourselves to look at things differently, if we want to. Or, as author Robert Weiss says: “The key is simply being open to the randomness that does present itself. We still walk in the world. If there’s a problem, we are the problem.”
Header Image credits: Royalty free