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….
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?