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In search of serendipity

If reports from the recent South By Southwest Interactive Festival are to be believed,
“serendipity” – a fortunate accidental discovery – appears to be “Buzzword of the Month.” This is both good and bad.

Good, because we need more serendipity in our lives.
Bad, because the word has become synonymous with creativity, which it isn’t.

Invention vs. innovation
Let’s start with the bad. Invention can happen by accident (“Mr. Watson, come here! I need you!”). And yes, chance meetings between engineers and developers have often led to a beneficial combination of ideas. This is why coffee breaks and water coolers play key roles in breaking down departmental silos. In fact, MIT discovered that longer tables in company cafeterias contribute tremendously to enabling these serendipitous meetings. And smokers, gathering outside the building 10-15 times a day, often have the most effective cross-silo social networks in their companies.

But encouraging spontaneous meetings does not necessarily spawn creativity. Nor do they necessarily encourage innovation. As opposed to invention, innovation is always a planned activity. It solves a problem – and if it doesn’t, it will invariably create one. And every innovation will result in technological, social, and political consequences. Companies can’t afford to leave this to chance.

Google and serendipity
Google’s Eric Schmidt calls their product “a serendipity engine.” Yet Google’s entire philosophy rests on its ability to zero in on data and display it in an incredibly targeted manner. In truth, the less serendipitous the results, the better the sales results from AdWords, etc.

Google is giving serendipity lip service while encouraging conformity. I dislike this kind of hypocracy.

Pasta and serendipity
Some months back, I was having lunch with an Italian acquaintance. I was chided for my Scandinavian manners, having used my knife to cut my pasta. Apparently, the correct method is to use the sharp crust of the accompanying bread (which you are not required to actually eat). The knife itself is never touched.

This is typical of the kind of accidental discovery that we see less and less of. Our lives are becoming more focused. The people we follow on Twitter and Facebook are selected because they often share our viewpoints. Yes, we are exposed to cute photos and viral videos, but how much do we actually learn from these interactions? I’ll bet you cannot browse through a printed newspaper without reading at least one article that fell outside your “normal” profile. That’s serendipity.

Social media and serendipity
As the amount of information at our disposal explodes, our tendency is to focus on fewer and fewer subjects. Authors such as Eli Pariser talk of how enterprises want to keep customers encased in information cocoons. And the information architecture community, myself included, has worked hard to emphasize the importance of both relevant content and context.

Unfortunately, this attitude is as right as it is wrong. Right because it introduces some of the basics of feng shui – we eliminate the clutter. Wrong because we hinder those accidental discoveries that make our lives richer.

Sorry, I don’t have a solution. But this is something I think about constantly and I suspect social media is going to play an important role it has not yet discovered. At the dawn of the Web era, Microsoft had a great slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” Alas, most people now go to exactly the same places they went yesterday. I think we are losing something incredibly valuable. Not because people have become less curious, but because they are being robbed of the opportunity to exercise their curiosity.

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