Steven Johnson on Digital Serendipity

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No medium in history has ever offered such unlikely trails of connection and chance in such an intuitive and accessible form. Yet in recent years, a puzzling meme has emerged on op-ed pages with a strange insistence: the rise of the Web, its proponents argue, has led to a decline in serendipitous discovery. Consider this representative elegy to the ‘endangered joy of serendipity,’ authored by a journalism professor named William McKeen:

 

‘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 . . . Looking for something and being surprised by what you find— even if it’s not what you set out looking for— is one of life’s great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.’ (William mcKeen)

 

In a similar piece, the New York Times technology editor, Damon Darlin, complained that the ‘digital age is stamping out serendipity.’ Darlin acknowledged the vast influx of suggested reading that now arrives on our screen every morning via social network services like Twitter and Facebook, but claimed those links didn’t constitute serendipity. ‘[ They’re] really group-think,’ Darlin argued. “Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.’

 

Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From (p. 117-118). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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