(How’s that for a click-baity headline? Am I doing it right?)
This is just some fleshed out notes from a short talk I gave to kick off the Codex Hackathon at MIT this weekend. My instructions were to get folks excited about the theme of Serendipity (not coincidentally, a favorite topic of mine).
I’m obsessed with serendipity.
Serendipity gets a bad rap sometimes, and is often associated with some pretty sexist and ageist stereotypes about bun-headed, pearl-clutching librarians who cling to their books and their browsing just in case someone might discover some unfinished, never before played sonata by German Composer Robert Shummann; or some unknown, uncatalogued, forgotten short stories by Zora Neale Hurston.
Those kinds of things actually do happen — those actual examples happened.
But Serendipity – at least the kind I am obsessed with is about so much more than just stumbling on some unexpected treasure in the bowels of libraries or archives … Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I hope we can all think expansively and creatively about serendipity – about what it is, why it ought to be encouraged and facilitated (especially now), and how we might leverage technology to democratize access to serendipitous encounters.
The OED says Serendipity is a happy, unexpected, accidental encounter with new information (paywall, so no link. But trust me).
I think of Serendipity as exposure to ideas, people, perspectives that we didn’t know we wanted to or needed to be exposed to.
And lately, I’ve been thinking of Serendipity as a pin prick that might burst our filter bubbles.
The most famous quote about serendipity is attributed to Louis Pasteur, who is said to have said “Serendipity favors the prepared mind” — which if you ask me is a little elitist.
In a print-based world, scholarly serendipity certainly favors a well-connected and well-placed mind. In the print-based world; happy, unexpected, accidental discoveries of ideas, and knowledge and perspectives is only possible for those with access to the people and the books and libraries and archives where those ideas reside. And that access has always been limited to elite communities.
The internet and the growth of digital libraries holds the promise of democratizing access not just to knowledge, but to the opportunities to discover things you didn’t know you wanted to discover.
In my ideal world, the likelihood of a serendipitous discovery is limited only by our openness to the possibility.
We need serendipity now more than ever – and we need it for as many people as possible. Because encountering new, unexpected ideas and information – being exposed to data, arguments, concepts – through books, for example — that we didn’t know existed, just might be the key to helping us all think in new ways, see the world through a different lens, and see new ways to solve old and sticky problems.
So my hope for this weekend is that you hack with an eye to using the tools, the data, and talent assembled here to promote more accessible and equitable forms of serendipity. I think our democracy, our world, could really use it right now.