Desperate for some digital magic

It seems quite odd at this late date that Damon Darlin thinks serendipity has been lost in the digital deluge of the Internet. In a column in the Sunday Times, Darlin acknowledged that “we’ve gained so much” in the way of information and entertainment. “But we’ve lost something as well,” he says: “the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”

Huh? When was the last time you went online and didn’t end up encountering things unexpected and interesting?

JamesYangforDarlinNYTDarlin laments what he sees as the fading possibility of perusing friends’ book shelves and CD and video collections in search of new discoveries, with those goodies increasingly obscured inside laptops, iPods and Kindles. It’s a strange line of reasoning to resuscitate, one long ago dispatched by Web thinkers, including author/blogger Steven Johnson three years ago. Back then, was the diminishing use of libraries as engines of discovery something to mourn?

“I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student,” Johnson wrote in May 2006. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the ‘binding.’) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”

Darlin’s loss-of-serendipity riff is akin to one that pops up regularly among those warning about the extinction of newsprint. If you’re getting all of your news online, the argument goes, you’ll be deprived of stumbling across a cool story inside those oversized inky pages, one that you might not otherwise ever read.

I still enjoy the ritual of immersing in the Sunday paper to which Darlin contributes, and I usually find interesting stuff in it to soak up, some of it even unexpected. But the fact is, that kind of fortunate discovery happens about a bazillion times more often in the digital realm. As Johnson also wrote:

I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.

The big challenge these days seems to be figuring out how to better handle the fire hose of content flow. It can indeed be frustratingly easy to forget what you set out for in the first place, to get lost down the endless digital byways. (Hah — how, exactly, did you end up here?) Yet, whatever nostalgia aside, when it comes to print vs. digital (or albums vs. iTunes, etc.), I don’t think we’re facing a zero-sum equation.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] in which case I’ve already spoiled your screen, but I’m more with Steven Johnson on the “greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture” thing. Happy […]


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