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Serendipity v algorithmy

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Jul 29, 2019

I’ve always liked the concept of serendipity, even more since being involved in the early days of coworking, where we used the term “accelerated serendipity” quite a bit. The idea that, through the creation of a welcoming space and a diversified and thriving community, you could accelerate (or concentrate) “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

So it’s probably a mix of Baader-Meinhof effect and well, serendipity, that these two articles grabbed my attention. In The Serendipity Engine, Gianfranco Chicco explains that he quit his job and will use the time to purposefully built up serendipity, seek fields he knows little about, learn new things, read an eclectic mix of books, be open to meeting strangers, visit new cities, etc. “Slowing down and renewing the commitment to a series of personal rituals.”

The Serendipity Engine works just like an internal combustion engine and, like with a high performance muscle car, you need to feed it with the right kind of propellant. In this analogy, the fuel is made of different activities, skills, and conversations. In my case I select them so that they are deliberately out of or tangential to my current professional domain. The engine also requires maintenance and fine tuning via iterations and changes to the activities or skills I become involved with.

He also connects his engine vision with Steven B. Johnson’s use of the concept of the adjacent possible, describing how different elements and ideas can be combined in various ways to create new elements and ideas.

The Serendipity Engine operates in a similar way, adding new stimulus into my life allow new and unexpected things to emerge.

Dan Cohen on the other hand, realized that he’s missing serendipity in the redesign of The New York Times app. Between the algorithmic “For you” tab and the pseudo old-school but very siloed “Sections,” he feels that he can’t bump into something new, he’s either presented with typecasted suggestions or enclosed in sections that don’t flow together, drawing you in from one to the next, like actual old-school paper newspapers did. For the sake of engagement, the NYT forfeits serendipity.

The engagement of For You—which joins the countless For Yous that now dominate our online media landscape—is the enemy of serendipity, which is the chance encounter that leads to a longer, richer interaction with a topic or idea. […]

Engagement isn’t a form of serendipity through algorithmically personalized feeds; it’s the repeated satisfaction of Present You with your myopically current loves and interests, at the expense of Future You, who will want new curiosities, hobbies, and experiences.

In a related idea, Kyle Chayka mourns some cancelled Netflix shows which were never presented to him because viewers are only shown a supposedly algorithmic homepage on Netflix (and elsewhere). In reality, that selection is corrupted by the business incentives of the company, pushing some shows to us, independent of our interests.

Sometimes there’s an algorithmic mismatch: your recommendations don’t line up with your actual desires or they match them too late for you to participate in the Cultural Moment. It induces a dysphoria or a feeling of misunderstanding—you don’t see yourself in the mirror that Netflix shows you.

One way to interpret all of this is that, even though we are supposed to be well served by algorithms, we end up not only missing some randomness, but we even have to actively seek it, busting our bubbles and building our own versions of Chicco’s engine. Or, as Chayka says below—and likely one of the reasons you are reading this blog:

Often we have to turn to other sources to get a good enough guide, however. Journalists, critics, and human curators are still good at telling us what we like, and have less incentive to follow the finances of the company delivering the content to us.


Found in the engine article; did you know that the word serendipity comes from the the Persian story of The Three Princes of Serendip? And that Serendip is one of the old names of Sri Lanka?