Those among you who are interested in the origin of words may already know the etymology of “serendipity.” The word is based on an ancient tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” and describes an accidental and fortunate discovery of something unexpected.
Serendipitous discoveries take place because of how things are ordered and because of the search tools and practices we employ. At the ISN we are also concerned with the order of things. We classify our content by using about 3000 keywords on international relations and security. With this concern in mind, on Wednesday in our weekly editorial meeting we discussed a recent NY Times article by Damon Darlin on the loss of serendipity in the digital age. According to Darlin, because of the internet tools in place today we have “lost the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find.”
So we wondered: Does indexing information really remove the element of surprise?
I believe this is not the case. Indexed information in any encyclopedia is a beautiful opportunity for serendipity. To support my argument I will cite Jorge Luis Borges, who, in his “Investigation of the Word” (in Selected Non-Fictions) talks about the “alphabetical disorder” of dictionaries. What a beautiful opportunity of finding words with very different meanings next to each other just because they share the same initial letters!
Online information sources do not differ from heavy dictionaries and paper encyclopedias, when it comes to allowing us to find material by accident. Only in an ideal world, putting a keyword into a search engine will lead to the right result. And here is where the serendipitous momentum of the web lies.
When it comes to describing what we have lost in the digital deluge Darlin’s article misses the point. What we might have lost and what we miss is the verbal exchange with another human being upon our discoveries on the web. We long for the human element: for the act of actually walking through a library and talking to a librarian. Because in the end, most computer searches and discoveries remain solitary experiences – at least in the moment when they occur.
While, as argued above, we still find things randomly online, the question is more: Will we be able to detect the importance of information revealed? Louis Pasteur’s famous quote captures the essence of the problem: “Chance only favors the prepared mind.” And so I ask: Are our minds prepared? Are we open to accidental encounters and are we willing to follow up on interesting pieces of information?
To conclude, I will quote Bill Thomposon’s words: “The real danger to serendipity is not the technology we use but our attitude towards it and the opportunities it offers.”
And I will end with my own words: It’s up to us to exploit the potential of web serendipity and also, to bring the human element back in. The readiness to learn rests in engaging in real time dialogues with other people.