James Gleick on the Value of Serendipity

Search Engines and the Future of Serendipity

Just a few days ago, I had the chance to watch a video clip of James Gleick talking about his then-recent book, Information, A History, A Theory, A Flood,  in the Talks at Google program (here, you can watch the whole session).

Gleick invited everyone to participate in the discussion, and while he managed everything smoothly, the mindset gap between the lecturer and the audience was easy to notice.

Referring to his experience working as a science reporter for the New York Times, Gleick contrasted the old media world and its leading newspapers and journalists with the new googlized world and its drowned-in-information citizens.

If you haven’t had a chance to read his book on Information, reading his article titled How Google Dominates Us will give you a grasp of his ideas on this topic.

Although various points were discussed in that highly interactive session, I just want to draw your attention to one of the issues discussed there: the concept of serendipity.

Definition of Serendipity

The Oxford Dictionary has defined serendipity as the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity from the Persian word Sarandib, referring to the old Persian fairy tale about three Sarandib princes who were always making accidental discoveries (Sarandib was Persian word for Sri Lanka).

The happy accident of discovery is another general description used for the word serendipity.

But in the context of the information and media, it’s easier and more helpful to consider serendipity as finding information which you were not looking for.

Referring to the old newspaper-age, Gleick provides a simple example of serendipity:

while reading the newspaper page by page, you see a short article about an event in a far country. You were not looking for such an article and never thought that it could be interesting for you, but now you are engaged with the article and may find it helpful or insightful.

Serendipity in the Digital Age

Because of their nature, serendipities were a common incident in the traditional media. Reading, watching and listening was linear and you had no other choice except following the content from the beginning to the end.

However, with the current digital tools and technologies, the user/audience has much more power in managing the inflow of information.

Most of search algorithms are proud of customized search results. Social media platforms filter the information and present you a handpicked set of the most relevant published content.

Filter bubble and echo chamber are coined to describe the situations where there is no chance of confronting with the serendipities.

As it is discussed in the video, someone may argue that the duty of the search engines is not to provide the user with the experience of serendipities. Users of the search engines, reach them with a specific question and expect to get the most relevant answer as fast as possible. Therefore, it’s the duty of the other institutions, such as universities and magazines, to make serendipities for their audience.

In his party controversial discussion, Gleick says that many users of the search engines, do not have a specific question in mind. They just start with a keyword and there’s still some room for providing unexpected answers for them (or at least consider a few serendipities in the search engine results page). But one of the attendees told him that usually, user refines its query and Google considers this back and forth communication as a dialogue. Therefore there’s no reason to derail such a purposeful conversation with irrelevant information called serendipity or whatsoever.

A Book about the Concept of Serendipity

While searching the web for the concept of serendipity, I learned that there’s a book dedicated to serendipity: Accidental Information Discovery.

I’ve just read a few pages of the book, but it seems to me that there are many fantastic ideas about the serendipity concept for anyone interested in this topic. The book is published in 2016, five years after the discussion of Gleick and Googlers in Mountain View.