Monday, June 05, 2006

The Late Lamented Serendipity?

Reports that the internet has killed serendipity are greatly exaggerated

A vigorous debate* has been sparked off by an op-ed article written by a University of Florida Professor, which in essence argues that the internet has made information so easy to find that the joy of stumbling on information that you didn't know existed has been killed off.

I recommend the following to anybody who thinks the internet has consigned serendipity** to the dustbin: next time you visit any website, just look around at the various links on whichever page you are on. You are certain to see at least one or two links that, while being unrelated to your current search, look like they may offer something interesting enough to check out. Use the "Open link in new window" feature to open the page to which that link leads without distracting you from whatever topic you are currently trying to get information on. Later on, when you have some leisure on your hands, you can go back to these windows lying open on your desktop and read those pages. I do this all the time, and because of this, end up getting information on far more topics from each surfing session than I ever set out to get. Long live Serendipity.

Further evidence that serendipity is hale and hearty in the age of the internet is that the new ubergurus of the internet, the folks at Google, have a service called Serendipity on their radar***.

Nevertheless, the perception that serendipity has lost out in the internet age has, in my opinion, some basis. The reasons have to do with both technology and mindset:

1. Low bandwidth ensures that the cost of "internet digression" such as the above is often prohibitive.
2. Newer web access devices such as handhelds, mobile phones, etc. suffer from limitations that make it difficult to digress in the above manner.
3. Above all, the attention deficit nature of our society ensures that we just do not want to digress as above. In the old days when we used to visit libraries to dig for information, we were just more willing to allow ourselves to digress. And that is the real reason for the perceived loss of serendipity.

As with many other developments - technological or otherwise - that we regard as the bane of society, it is not so much that things around us have changed - it is that we have changed!
* See, for example, Nicholas Carr's blog

** Incidentally, the word serendipity comes from an old name for the island of Sri Lanka, Serendip.

*** In fact, they already have a service called Google Suggest which partially acts as a mechanism to find sites you weren't really looking for (or were, but may not have found thru conventional search)!.