A topic of great importance – serendipity – has suddenly surfaced in public debate. William McKeen, chairman of the University of Florida journalism department, recently wrote an article in the St Petersburg Times titled The endangered joy of serendipity, suggesting that in an online world we are less likely to stumble across the vital information you aren’t specifically looking for. Steven Johnson, author of among other titles Everything Bad is Good For You, responded with a blog post Can we please kill this meme now, strongly disagreeing that online information is worse for serendipitous discoveries than print, sparking substantial debate on the theme. With the mainstream press commonly taking their stories from discussions in the blogosphere, not surprisingly the BBC took up this issue of the importance of serendipity, with a piece Serendipity casts a very wide net.
I’ve been speaking about serendipity for some years, and more specifically the concept of “enhanced serendipity”, that is, deliberately making fortuitous and valuable accidents more likely to happen. As part of the debate Nicholas Carr wrote a post expanding on the history of the word serendipity. However he missed out an important detail of the story. As Carr wrote, the word originates from Horace Walpole, who coined it from the story, The Three Princes of Serendip. The three princes, in their adventures, had the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries. However these didn’t just happen to them; the princes actually helped to create them. In the following tale, excerpted from a retelling of the The Princes of Serendip by Richard Boyle, the three princes are advisors to the great Emporer Beramo.
Beramo has fallen in love with a beautiful slave girl called Diliramma, who one day questioned his honour in public. In a fit of rage, he had her bound and abandoned in a forest. The next day, Beramo was filled with remorse and ordered a search for his paramour. No trace of her was found, leaving Beramo ill with sorrow.
Witnessing the emperor’s suffering, the princes advise him to build seven beautiful palaces and to reside in each one for a week. In addition, the best storyteller in each of the seven most important cities of the empire is to be brought into his royal presence to recount a marvellous story.
Over the weeks, in his various palaces, Beramo listens with appreciation to six of the stories, his health steadily improving. While listening to the seventh story, about a ruler who spurns his lover, Beramo suddenly realizes that it concerns Diliramma and himself. On being questioned, the storyteller reveals that he knows Diliramma and that he is searching for her lord to tell him that she still loves him despite his act of cruelty. Overjoyed, Beramo sends for Diliramma and they are reunited.
In this story, the princes have created a strategy for making a happy accident more likely to happen. This is a great example of enhancing serendipity, not just being subject to it. That is what we must seek to do, in creating links between ideas and people that would be enormously valuable if only they were made. So many of the emerging technologies of today, from blogs to collaborative filtering systems such Last.FM, absolutely facilitate happy accidents.
The debate on the topic is very important. I believe that online search tools are currently at a very early stage of development, and so they are hardly likely to cut us off from accidental discoveries of relevant or interesting information any more than we have been in a print world. However we are moving closer to a time when we will be able to hone in on what we are seeking with great precision. I have previously envisaged a “serendipity dial” which we can situate either to give us great accuracy, or a greater possibility of accidents in our discoveries. I don’t share McKeen’s concerns. Most people are far more diversely informed than they were not long ago, except by choice. The tools we have are not at fault. As we move forward, we need to be highly aware of the degree of serendipity we are choosing. The new world of information gives us that choice.