What does Renaissance art have in common with a pencil? If you believe in knowledge through serendipitous discovery, then quite a lot.
This week I was looking for a book on Renaissance art in the library. While walking through the stacks, Henry Petroski’s  The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance , a book about the origins of the pencil, caught my eye. This was just the book to help with another project I am working on, one associated with business-related technology artifacts. What luck! And I would never have found this book had I not seen it on the shelf…by chance.
Rewind one week. I stopped into the Barnes and Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue In Manhattan. I hadn’t been in the store for years but I remembered it being packed with all sorts of great books. It might be the product of selective memory, but this time the shelves didn’t look all that full. And not a single book on my shopping list was in the store. One of them, a book just published in April, was actually categorized as "print on-demand"--even though the book is now in its 3rd edition. While this isn’t the only store where I have had this experience, it certainly was the biggest.
As more and more book sales move online, brick and mortar bookstores are stocking only the most popular titles, reducing our chance of stumbling across that random, fascinating book that you never would have looked for. I am not a Luddite, and I am not lamenting the demise of paper books. But the loss of chance encounters does concern me, because many of my best ideas have come from those random books and articles.
And it’s not just me. Serendipitous encounters like these random book discoveries, have long been considered an important source of discoveries and inventions. Sociologist Robert K. Merton first published this idea in the Sociological Review  in 1948, but it is clear from his writing that this idea was already firmly established.
So if the likelihood of chance encounters through paper decreases, where else can these serendipitous encounters occur? As the buyers of large numbers of books, libraries remain one possibility, but even there, more floor space is being dedicated to digital resources, at the expense of paper. Another alternative is the Internet. Which raises the question, “Can serendipitous encounters happen online?”
At first glance, the possibility of encountering random information online seems small. Most of us visit the same few web sites on a daily basis. For most of use, our daily information experience is narrowing, segmenting into micro-channels such as Facebook, email, and the odd news outlet website; the only exposure to random items coming from friend recommendations.
Our other online pursuit, searching for information online, usually starts with a search engine. Clicking on a search result then leads to a page of related information; a page that is usually hyperlinked to other pages. Repeated clicking on hyperlinks can lead to what Vannevar Bush  called a web of trails , a set of pages connected by loosely associated ideas. One could argue that hyperlinks enable a form of discovery, because links lead to external web pages, but this is not serendipity; hyperlinks expose associations created by someone else’s intentional though processes.
Steven Johnson , author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation , argues  that blog surfing and recommendations from random fellow surfers fulfill the need for chance encounters online. I think these kind of encounters are more webs of trails rather than chance encounters. Even if you find unrelated information on a page reached through hyperlinks, these encounters usually lead you down a sinkhole of information overload. Rather than thought-provoking chance encounters, these connections turn into an exhausting exercise in sifting through lots of junk.
I do agree with Johnson though that digital browsing extends our exposure to potentially unrelated information, but this level of interaction is usually shallow. The experience of landing on a web page is not the same as flipping through a book on a table in the library or bookstore.
Software developers are trying to build serendipity tools and search engines. BananaSlug , a serendipity search engine, is one example. In 2010, Google  talked about developing a serendipity search engine, but nothing has yet appeared. (The recent acquisition of location-based search engine Cleversense  does not qualify as a true serendipity engine). Online bookstores also offer tools for “suggested readings,” but these tools try to interpret buyer preferences rather than offer unrelated materials. Browsers have similar “suggest site” capabilities.
One tool that does a reasonable job of providing chance encounters is Slideshare.  This is one site where it is easy to see random information just by browsing. But most attempts at online chance encounters have fallen short.
Paradoxically, researchers are exploring ways to program serendipity. A good review of online research efforts can be found in a recent article in Information Research  entitled, Facets of Serendipity in Everyday Chance Encounters: A Grounded Theory Approach to Blog Analysis . But nothing in the research I have seen so far points to a major breakthrough.
So, what, if anything can replace the shrinking opportunities to interact with random paper books or articles? I think the answer lies in the human aspect of this basic need. One need only look at the continued popularity of industry conferences and tradeshows, despite their predicted demise in the face of more efficient virtual events. There is just something primal in our need for physical interactions. I believe the same will be true for chance encounters. People will continue search for ways to randomly brush up against unfamiliar experiences...online and off. It’s built into our DNA.
Do you think serendipitous encounters can happen online, and if so, how? Tell us about it in the comments.
[Image: Flickr user Emi Yañez ]