IN SEARCH OF SERENDIPITY

It means more than a happy coincidence. And it's under threat from the internet. Ian Leslie explains ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

One day in 1945, a man named Percy Spencer was touring one of the laboratories he managed at Raytheon in Waltham, Massachusetts, a supplier of radar technology to the Allied forces. He was standing by a magnetron, a vacuum tube which generates microwaves, to boost the sensitivity of radar, when he felt a strange sensation. Checking his pocket, he found his candy bar had melted. Surprised and intrigued, he sent for a bag of popcorn, and held it up to the magnetron. The popcorn popped. Within a year, Raytheon made a patent application for a microwave oven.

The history of scientific discovery is peppered with breakthroughs that came about by accident. The most momentous was Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, prompted when he noticed how a mould that floated into his Petri dish killed off the surrounding bacteria. Spencer and Fleming didn’t just get lucky. Spencer had the nous and the knowledge to turn his observation into innovation; only an expert on bacteria would have been ready to see the significance of Fleming’s stray spore. As Louis Pasteur wrote, “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.”

The word that best describes this subtle blend of chance and agency is “serendipity”. It was coined by Horace Walpole, man of letters and aristocratic dilettante. Writing to a friend in 1754, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had just made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…now do you understand Serendipity?” These days, we tend to associate serendipity with luck, and we neglect the sagacity. But some conditions are more conducive to accidental discovery than others.

Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.

When the internet was new, its early enthusiasts hoped it would emulate the greatest serendipity machine ever invented: the city. The modern metropolis, as it arose in the 19th century, was also an attempt to organise an exponential increase, this one in population. Artists and writers saw it as a giant playground of discovery, teeming with surprise encounters. The flâneur was born: one who wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map. 

Most city-dwellers aren’t flâneurs, however. In 1952 a French sociologist called Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe asked a student to keep a journal of her daily movements. When he mapped her paths onto a map of Paris he saw the emergence of a triangle, with vertices at her apartment, her university and the home of her piano teacher. Her movements, he said, illustrated “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives”.

To some degree, the hopes of the internet’s pioneers have been fulfilled. You type “squid” into a search engine, you land on the Wikipedia page about squid, and in no time you are reading about Jules Verne and Pliny. But most of us use the web in the manner of that Parisian student. We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles.

Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a long-time evangelist for the internet, points out that it doesn’t match the ability of the printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. He calls the front page of a newspaper a “discovery engine”: the lead story tells you something you’re almost certain to be interested in—the imminent collapse of the global economy, or Lady Gaga’s latest choice of outfit—and elsewhere on the page you learn that revolution has broken out in a country of whose existence you were barely aware. Editors with an eye for such things, what Zuckerman calls “curators”, are being superseded by “friends”—people like you, who probably already share your interests and world view—delivered by Facebook. Twitter is better at leading us to the interests of people beyond our social circle, but our tendency to associate with others who think in similar ways—what sociologists call our “value homophily”—means most of us end up with a feed that feels like an extended dinner party.

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