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Thursday, May 31, 2012 01:39 pm

Accidental sagacity

Does the Internet mean the death of serendipity?

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I was looking up something else on the web a couple of months ago when I ran across a reminiscence by the veteran Tribune writer Ron Grossman. “Like Columbus, I’d start with a destination in mind but wind up someplace else,” he recalled about his boyhood explorations of the family encyclopedia. “‘Pericles,’ the Athenian statesman, adjoins ‘pericardium,’ the membrane surrounding the heart. If while looking up the former, your eye slipped across the page to the latter . . .it just might arouse your curiosity about a whole new subject.”

Grossman never used the word, but his paean to the encyclopedia was in fact an appreciation of serendipity as a means of discovery and delight, or perhaps I should say the delight in discovery. Open library shelves are a similar portal to unsuspected wider worlds, as is the paper newspaper; the latter permits, indeed almost guarantees, that as you look for the news you are interested in, you come across all the news that you are not interested in yet. Nor was it was only in temples of print that one had these serendipitous encounters. I had my first exposure to modern art on the covers of album covers of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which featured the work of such painters as Joan Miró, Franz Kline and Sam Francis.

Such haphazard methods of exploring the world are scoffed at by the Internet generation as being as outmoded as foraging in the woods for one’s own breakfast every morning. The Internet, they argue, can take you faster and farther toward places you never meant to go in than encyclopedias, bookstores or libraries or newspapers ever could.

Science writer Steven Johnson made his case in his blog a while back. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better,” he insisted. Rather, it is the web that is “the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.” Johnson cites as an example one of his favorite blogs, kottke.org, “home of fine hypertext products.”

As I write this, kottke.org has up posts about Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner sequel, an Onion story about aliens getting bored listening to the Voyager recording of Earth sounds, videos about how to open a beer bottle with a chainsaw and how to use a paper towel properly, the history of the taco, a GQ profile of Justin Beiber, pictures of people’s faces being blown by powerful fans and a commencement address by a TV producer.

While all this stuff is good clean fun (I can spend minutes at a time at sites like this) it is also trivial. Well, fine – lots of people think that politics and economics, the subjects of many of the sites I visit, are trivial. More fundamental criticisms, at least in the context of the serendipity discussion, are 1) you have to seek out a website to experience it and 2) the contents of any website display what has been called, in a nice phrase, “a carefully curated randomness.”

Serendipity in a box – just click and stir.

Sure, Wikipedia gives you links, but only to topics or terms related to what you were already interested in. Alan Jacobs, critic and Wheaton College professor – whose work, I must admit, I first encountered on the web – challenged Johnson’s view. He pointed out that hyperlinking and tagging are much more powerful because they are more precise, “but because they are more precise they offer fewer surprises.” In the same way, a good bookshop broadens one’s exposure to different kinds of books, while Amazon’s recommendation engine narrows it.     

Johnson parried, “Yes, those initial starting points are filters defined by my initial tastes. But my taste is for surprise and novelty – and that’s what they deliver.” Is it serendipity if you’ve gone looking for it? And by clicking only onto what already interests us, does not the mind tend to become stagnant, or, worse, narrowed and hardened? Browsing a decent library’s shelves makes it clear how much we don’t know. If those shelves contained only what we already read, or works very like them, we would be tempted to conclude that we already know everything. This is one reason why we are more certain about what we know, or think we know; so much of what we now read reinforces it.

Marvel that the Internet is, there’s a price to be paid for everything, and what Jacobs has called “accidental sagacity” is the price paid for speed and precision in retrieving information. In the end, though, not that much has changed. Curious people use the Internet in the way curious people once used the public library shelf or the crowded newspaper front page. Uncurious people don’t, and didn’t. The curious know more about fewer things, the uncurious know less about many more things, and life goes on.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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