Happy Chance Serendipity

Happy Chance Serendipity

Una feliz casualidad Serendipia

Sven Birkerts

Much as I am preoccupied with the concept, I have trouble with the word itself: serendipity. It is, alas, another branding casualty. ‘Serendipity,’ like ‘potpourri’ and ‘bric-a-brac,’ does duty first as a name for a notions store in the renovated downtown district of most any American city, and survives only secondly as an idea. And even then, it is an idea that has been long since gummed into some sort of New Age pap, along with Jungian synchronicity, Zen satori, coincidence, feng shui, you name it. Anything that might serve the agendas of the pop-spiritualists has been put to use and discredited, thereby poisoning the well for us any non-New Agers who might have some sympathy for non-analytic kinds of connectedness.

I want to reclaim serendipity, to strip the fuzzy aura from the idea–not that it’s that profound–but I don’t know if it can be done. I will try. I have my reasons.

Serendipty. The word derives from an old Persian folk-tale about three princes of Serendip who possessed the gift for finding “valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” (Webster’s). Happy chance. Obviously there’s no way such a pleasing mystery could escape appropriation by owners of cute gift-shops and card emporia. It’s a soft idea, I agree, but I want it.

Not as is–no, I want to work with it, mold it to my uses. To start, my notion of serendipity is not as benign or general as what that the derivation offers. For me, serendipity is about attention, recognition, and unexpectedness; about things coming to hand as needed, and is thus linked to another favorite concept, bricolage, which has to do with purposing available materials to unexpected uses. It does link, too, to synchronicity, the recognition that certain causally unrelated events can be seen to have thematic echoes with each other, carrying intimations of meaningful convergence. To accept the serendipitous elements of experience is to extend the reach of the meaningful by allowing the value of suggestive resonance. It does not imply a surrender to a mysticism of crystals and Tarot packs.

Or does it? Why am I being so guarded in my approach to this? What am I saying when I say that I welcome serendipity into my life?

I’m saying chance may have significance, if not in terms of showing forth the nature of realty, then certainly in revealing how the mind shapes meaning, how it looks for convergence, harmonies between things, implications. I welcome serendipity in part because I have to, because it is, whether I like it or not, part of how I navigate the circumstances of my life. My awareness of it testifies to the fundamental truth that I narrate my progress through the day, that I look for–impose–meanings where to another person there might not be meanings. I conceive my life in large general terms as an undertaking that might–that I hope will–yield meaning. This is very general, I know, but I am dealing with a subjective, an existential, concept, not one amenable to scientific analysis.

The second “technology” might be described as serving up the algorithms of preference based on input we’ve provided. We see this at Amazon with books, If you enjoyed…, at Netflix with movies, and most recently–and obviously–with Pandora, the program that feeds us music that conforms to what are deemed to be our listening tastes. But this fine-casting is hardly confined to the arts. Indeed, our every move on-line is now shadowed. The information we have provided with our myriad searches and purchases has been put to work. Our discrete on-line actions are rapidly being converted into user-profiles, profiles that map to our purchasing behavior, our ostensible subject interests, and, aesthetic preferences. Our every on line move is logged and subjected to various calculations. The more we use the internet, the more refined the search–the object of which is us. The world is pulled around us like a kind of saran-wrap.

Both of these technologies, these applications–they seem to be almost universally touted right now–represent an abridging of initiative, a short-circuiting of old trial-and-error approaches. They bring the world to us in ways hitherto unknown, and in the process reorient us, not so subtly, in our way of encountering it. Our use of these applications, and our involvement in new assumptions and expectations, is changing our experience at the most baseline level.

This assertion is closely tied up with the debate currently much in the news, which can be summarized using the slightly alarmist headline I’ve seen more than once: “Is the internet changing our brains?” Discussion–and dispute–have most recently been sparked by the publication of Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, which argues in essence that, yes, our internet use is physically changing us, re-wiring us neurally in demonstrable ways. The brain turns out to be an organ of remarkable plasticity. While I am fascinated by Carr’s presentation, my suppositions here concern transformations at a different level– with ways of thinking of ourselves and what we do–though who knows if neural impulses are not in some way also implicated.

I want to consider what happens when a technology enables–indeed, encourages–a change in a customary way of doing things, how old patterns of response, old understandings modify accordingly. But if I speculate on the impact of specific applications, I keep in mind that the effects are necessarily modified–very likely amplified–by the countless other kindred transformations taking place at the same time. I will focus on GPS and Pandora, taking them as cases in point, but the use of either or both happens in tandem with a host of other engagements: Twitter, Facebook…

GPS. On the face of it, an application that converts the unprecedented power of search engines to the most practical utilitarian effect: devising the easiest pathway from point A to point B through the tangle of our surface grid of roads and highways. A few years ago I was astonished–that such a thing could exist, that people I knew would use it, would extol it without being appalled, would eventually profess themselves completely reliant on it. I offered up the obvious argument–which still strikes me as a good one: that it represents a ceding of intiative, imposes another layer between person and surroundings; that it turns one kind of process into another. This last seems especially truth, worth investigating. “But what about maps? How is this different from looking at a map?”

Maybe that’s the way to get at it. How is using GPS different from using a map? When I consult a map to get myself from my house in Arlington to an unfamiliar address in, say, Natick, I am venturing an act of interpretation. I consult the spatialized landscape on offer, reading it through what I understand–markings that indicate highways, avenues, streets, and, if I have a good map, lanes and smaller byways. I then obey certain assumptions, negotiate various probabilities, making guesses about distances, likelihood of access (exits, one-way streets), and so on. When I head out, map spread open on the street beside me, I toggle between that empirical grid and my experienced sense that at key junctures I may have to improvise, finding another street to substitute for an unmarked one-way, or–god forbid–asking directions when a road is unexpectedly closed or does not appear as indicated. Maps, even the best, are never not approximations, and I read any map with that as my baseline assumption. There will be an element of improvisation to any trip I take, and I factor that in.

“But this is true with GPS, too!” my user-friends tell me. GPS can’t report when a road is closed for emergency repairs, or a leftturn is suddenly proscribed. They tell me this as if to say there is no difference after all, not in the way I’m thinking.

What is going unremarked is that while I am the one looking at the map and making my guesses, solving for X as I go, the GPS has already solved for X and is telling me what I need to do and I need only obey. Never mind that every so often there is the kind of glitch that makes the system as fallible as a map, the point is that psychological agency is completely reversed, and that I have placed my trust in the infallibility of a device. What had been an action of informed surmises–driving to a destination–has become one of heeding commands, each one simply a means to the desired end. Those informed surmises related me to the landscape I was traversing, every juncture inviting me to test, confirm, and to some degree implant myself in the terrain. And the various impulse modifications of plan–that road looks bigger, I’m sure it goes through–injected possibility, at least the idea of it, into my day. The GPS is not a more sophisticated map– it is a giving over, in small and maybe large ways, the essence of travel. Travel, in my admittedly romantic conception, is not the utilitarian progress from point to point with the ultimate aim of arrival. It is, rather, the experience of traversing the unknown, or unfamiliar, enabled by that point-to-point framework. And what GPS is doing, literally and symbolically, on the local scale, can stand for what is happening on other scales: it is banishing the idea of inefficiency, of being lost, of unforeseen intersection (not absolutely, of course). If travel is in large part an encounter with the unknown, then our new applications are rationalizing core aspects of that experience. Not only by getting us there without distraction or digression, but also by selling incessantly the message of knowability: everything has been measured and calculated. The world may be our oyster, but it is a farm-raised creature, not an essence drawn up from the sea-bed.

This is a big thing, our subliminal absorption of the idea that our world has been completely digested and mastered, and that we progress by obedience.

The other application in question was that of the preference algorithm–the “Pandora effect.” Here again I feel up against what seems to be an almost universal enthusiasm. What could possibly be wrong about technology anticipating and custom-responding to my tastes–in books, music, film…? It’s not as though my tastes are being dictated or in any way reformed. No, if anything they are being enhanced. If I tell Pandora that I like the music of Tim Hardin and early Paul Simon and the program then introduces me to Nick Drake and certain songs by Richard Thompson and reminds me, too, that I used to like very early Donovan, who am I to complain? I’ve found things that give me pleasure that I might have never encountered otherwise, the vagaries of listening being what they are. There’s that Eric Rohmer film I never knew existed, and the poetry of Michael Hoffman. World abundant!

My grouse? It’s obvious: that these preference-feeders, while undeniably enabling much, are another thing shifting us from initiative to obedience, and in the process, somehow stealing a portion of the mystery that is our due. Not that Pandora by itself stops the listener from striking fresh trails into the unknown. But it does change the game, does it not? Instead of doing whatever unstructured and aimless thing she did before, the listener is now far more likely to proceed via the Pandora system, proposing new favorites to the preference machine and seeing where they might lead.

How is this different? As there was a qualitative difference between searching for a destination via GPS versus paper map, so there is a difference between the Pandora route and the old process of chasing leads. The latter was, granted, more labor-intensive, and it asked for a much different time-line. It amounted to, at least for me, paying a very special kind of attention. If I liked an artist, I naturally scoured the liner notes (or CD inserts) for mentions of others, I kept my antennae out in all directions, I listened to the radio, I heeded people whose tastes I trusted, and so on. Making a connection, like that from Tim Hardin to Nick Drake, might take years–it did take years–but the payoff felt sweet and earned, and the fact that it didn’t happen instantly gave me a sense of the vastness of the musical landscape, how it extended geographically and through time, strung together by fine strands of influence.

I don’t expect this to persuade many. But maybe it will make clear why that word–serendipity–has been so present to me. I feel that one great commonality of these applications and others (friendlocators, customized shopping tips…) is to short-circuit serendipity, to undercut the worldview that it is part of. Bringing a set of finely tuned but essentially rationalized systems in, making them part of our subjective process, our behavior, eats away at the unknown, at the idea of the unknown. It does not augment us, though having all these new high-speed capacities would seem to. Rather, it changes the ground we stand on, giving us an illusion of comprehensibility where there really is none. We are not seeing the triumph over the unknown. We are seeing, rather, the differential between what we can achieve and what our super-engineered machines can. Where their reach concludes, the unknown resumes, and it is no less infinite than it was before. That truth we cannot afford to lose, for without it all is hubris.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *