With the new site finally up, I decided to get around to writing all sorts of backlogged posts I had planned. Here goes.

I came across this article a while ago, and it struck a chord. William McKeen, a professor, the chairman of the University of Florida department of journalism, writes about serendipity, and how we may be losing it in the modern era of efficient searching and information at our fingertips:

There’s an art to finding something when you’re not looking for it.

In my freshman class at the University of Florida, I require the 240 students to subscribe to the New York Times Monday through Friday. I haven’t even finished announcing this in class the first day, when the hands shoot up. “Can’t we just read it online?” they ask, the duh? implicit.

“No,” I say and the eyes roll. They think I’m some mossback who hasn’t embraced new media.

“Why not?” Challenging, surly, chips on the shoulders.

“Because then you would only find what you’re looking for.”

Serendipity is a historian’s best friend and the biggest part of the rush that is the daily magic of discovery. It’s one of those small things that make life worth living, despite all the torment, pain, tragedy and stifling Interstate traffic.

Serendipity is defined as the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally. There’s so much of modern life that makes it preferable to the vaunted good old days – better hygiene products and power steering leap to mind – but in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered.

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding….

Keep reading…

This stuff interests me on several levels. First of all, I like thinking about the computer revolution and what it has done (and is doing) to our society. I’m not sure if we realize just how radically some things are changing. This is a great example. McKeen isn’t just talking about how we manage one area of our lives; this is pervasive. It’s about how we approach information, be it informative (e.g. a research paper, a newspaper article), entertaining (movies, music, books) or somewhere in-between. And as he points out, it extends even past there, to a sense of shared ideas. If we all listen to the radio, there’s commonality. But if I listen to my music and you listen to yours, and no other, then we lose that. I think McKeen is right – that’s a problem. Question is, what do we do about it?

Funny thing is, the other reason I found this article so interesting was that I tend to rely on serendipity quite a bit, especially when surfing the web. McKeen didn’t note that while we tend to browse less in the Internet Age, when we do, it’s a lot more productive (not efficient; I don’t know if you can talk of efficiency in an activity like browsing.) And I don’t think I’m alone. How many people look one thing up in Wikipedia, then get sidetracked on a fascinating exploration of some topic they’ve never read about? And how many are doing that simply because it’s just so easy to navigate from one to the other with a single click? I read a lot on the web, and it isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Often, I’m not even looking for anything specific. Isn’t that serendipity too?

5 Responses to “Serendipity”

  1. Alisha says:

    You know what’s funny? While I was reading the article, I was already thinking of the comment I wanted to make. But by the time I got to the end of your post…you’d pretty much made it for me!

  2. cuz dys says:

    I had a chavruta who prefered to look through sefarim for just the reason mentioned here.

  3. Lise says:

    Maybe he was making a bit too much of a sweeping statement…or, more likely, I’m an anomaly. My parents gave me the Shorter OED for Chanukah a few years back. I was blissful, ecstatic, euphoric…yes, yes. Because I read dictionaries for fun. I look up one word, see another, and am compelled to keep reading, and then sometimes flipping to other sections to understand *those* definitions….

    As to the New York Times…I skim around the website quite a bit. Though I do depend on the ones touted on the main page, for the most part, I suppose. Used to be better about just clicking on a subject and perusing…I think I stopped that when the NYTimes started to irritate me too much. 😉

    You’re dead-on about surfing, though, and serendipity. *Especially* when it comes to finding new blogs…. 🙂

    Btw…greetings from Memphis, TN.

  4. ilan says:

    Yeah, I hear that, Lise.
    I realized after writing this that the irony of it all was that I only found his article after surfing around a bit.

  5. Sora says:

    You know, here you’re hitting on a subject I just adore — sociological consequences of technology. I personally agree with both the article and your comments here at the end.

    It’s true that the internet has changed our whole perspective of research, because sifting information has become a significantly more precise art. It’s a matter of keywords instead of Dewey Decimal (which, sadly, few people know these days.) So he IS correct that when looking for information, we are more direct in our search. And this does cause us to be more direct, and less patient, in most things. Serendipity requires a certain amount of patience, and a willingness to wade through murky waters which lead to nowhere in particular.

    You are correct, however, on the point that most people, while surfing the internet, tend to stumble on all kinds of new tidbits. Lord knows, I’ve found myself perusing some interesting and highly unexpected topics on the internet.

    Where I think the writer of this article went wrong is that he seems to say that the internet age is the direct cause of lost serendipity, which simply isn’t true. It HAS, however, nurtured the ever-growing laziness of the general population. Few among us really desire to delve into the unlimited sources of information that make up the internet. We have precise topics, and we know how to target them. We’re to the point, and we get what we want.
    We’re not in depth people in this generation. We’re minimalists where work is concerned. We’re direct and to the point, doing only as much work as we need to in order to get the A, get the promotion, or simply stay above the status quo. There’s no doubt that such mentalities existed in every generation, but it’s been diffused to the general public — amplified, magnified and maximized by a generation raised on products designed to keep me from ever having to leave my chair or lift a finger, unless it’s to click the buttons on a remote control.

    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate technology as much as the next guy (his name is Joe), but there’s a difference between appreciating it’s usefulness, taking advantage of it when necessary, and being so absorbed in it, addicted to it, that the thought of one day without this or that modern convenience (not including those conveniences related to hygiene and other basic survival needs) is equivocated to jumping on a ledge blindfolded.

    —-it appears I’ve gone off on a slightly irrelevant rant. I apologize. I’ll stop now. I’ll still post this because, as irrelevant as it may be, I still think it’s damn good.

    As a final note — Wikipedia is, I believe, a category all it’s own. It’s really designed to encourage serendipity. Wikipedia is a project designed to enhance the internet research experience.


    Disclaimer: The above post was written by Sora while half asleep at work, as is her custom.

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