The Greatest Serendipity Engine in History

Aleks Krotoski

The Web has been described as the greatest serendipity engine in history. With a few clicks, it can take us from a site about Britney Spears to a post about monarch butterflies via peanut butter cookie recipes, BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy and an essay about Karl Marx. Never before have we had such an abundance of diverse information at our fingertips.

But true to its nature as the commercial layer of content on top of the pipes of the Internet, this delightful, compelling and exciting feature (and artefact) of the user-generated hypertext network is being commercialised, exploited and corrupted. “Serendipity” is now a buzz word, an objective, something to be predicted and delivered.

The word was coined by Horace Walpole who, after reading the Arabian fable The Three Princes of Serendip, distilled the accidents the title’s princes bumped into on their epic journey (and the sagacity they demonstrated in applying the experiences usefully) into the word “serendipity”.

And herein lies the rub: the Web can take us to the proverbial water, but it cannot make us drink. It can introduce us to the possibilities that might eventually become serendipitous experiences, but it (and its designers) cannot predict that we will be sagacious in its application.

This is an evolution of how we have come to regard the Web: we look to the machine as magic, a device to solve all our woes. We ask it to guide us through what it thinks is best for us, and to mediate our relationships. We have devolved our decision-making to a sophisticated assemblage of binary codes curated into place by software engineers who, themselves, have agendas, frames and biases.

This is the next step of our digital literacies: to recognise that code is not just law; it’s art. It is as situated in time and place as a Spielberg film, Lebanese cuisine and mid-century Scandinavian architecture. The accidents the web throws in our paths are only part of serendipity recipe. We have to have the insight to see value in what it shows us, but also the critical capacity to ask how it might be otherwise.

If we don’t look for the man behind the curtain, we will continue to blame machines for the social ills that it reflects back upon us, and that misrepresent this extraordinary innovation as the villain in our fight against corruption. These are the conversations we’re avoiding, because it’s easier for the web to deliver an accident and decide it’s happy, than to take the responsibility ourselves.

See more from Aleks Krotoski:
The Serendipity Engine:
Last Bus to Serendip:
The Personal (Computer) Is Political:
Official BBC Radio 4 Digital Human series homepage:
Digital Human research tumblog: