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
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
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
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]