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I came across an interesting post today by the Kansas City Star's Eric Adler suggesting that technology is robbing us of serendipity, those playful moments of spontaneous discovery.

For example, he wonders when the last time a young person went into a library or book store and just found a book on the shelves. Are search engines and the web robbing us of this experience? In my view, while technology is altering the way we experience the world, it isn't necessarily completely removing serendipity from the equation.

Suggestions Engines

When I discussed this idea with my wife, she was quick to point out that the very nature of the web leads us down the path of serendipity (to the chagrin of some content owners). We click a link to see a related piece and we are off on our own internet-driven adventure. One link may lead to another and another and before we know it, we may discover information and web sites we never knew existed, voices we never would have heard.

Adler points out that we have suggestion engines on Amazon and iTunes, for example, that may drive us to content we might never have tried. You see the same thing in YouTube after every video plays. It's the 21st century version of perusing the stacks or flipping through album covers. But Adler (and his sources) wonder if it's too homogenized because it continues to suggest things within the confines of your comfort zone. Perhaps, but if you discover something new, it's still just as valid as any other method in my view.

Pandora Anyone?

Perhaps the best example of the suggestion engine is Pandora, the online radio station that suggests music based on an initial suggestion and takes you places musically you very likely never would have considered. You can let the engine know your likes and dislikes and it adjusts on the fly. I know my daughter has become a fan of lesser known musicians through this method.

Social Media Angle

Another angle to consider here is the role of social media. In a discussion with a friend last week, he suggested that although social networks like Facebook may give young people (and all of us) a greater connection to the world, he believes that these connections are more casual than face-to-face relationships and that people sometimes use online social tools as an excuse to avoid real-world interaction. As someone who uses social media regularly, I've found that, from my perspective, it has served to reinforce and reestablish existing relationships, while allowing me to form new friendships, some of which at least feel as solid as my offline relationships.

In addition, these people become recommenders, pointing us to content, we might never have seen. In some ways, as Adler says, this could be another form of cultural reinforcement, but it entirely depends on your friends. Even somewhat like-minded people have a broad set of interests and it can lead to discovery.

So have we lost serendipity as Adler postulates? I don't think so. Instead, we have created new ways to experience this type of spontaneous joy that we would never have considered in prior times. Technology is a catalyst and used correctly it can drive us to learn about new aspects of our world and forge new friendships. At its worst, it's confining and restraining, but at its best, technology can help make our world smaller, and place us on to that path of discovery. It all depends on you use it and how you see it.

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Last Post by Techwriter10
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I think that products like the Kindle rob us of some serendipity (never thought I would see this word, much less use it, on DaniWeb) in the fact that I am a traditionalist. I like the organic feeling of the book binding in my hand, the feel and sound of the turning page, the dog-earring of a page to mark my place, and the very act of passing a beloved book from one generation to another. On this last point, I own a number of books (in total I own over 500) that were read and handed down from my father-in-law and my great-grandmother. My wife has a full-collection of Agatha Christie books she and her father read and inside each cover are notations made by both of them of the dates they read each book. Our daughter is reading them now and she is adding her own notations of dates. You lose that type of tradition and generational continuity with technology. Same with MP3s. I have downloaded many songs but I still have a working record player (with USB connectivity for speakers) that my daughter and I listen to my old Beatles, Zeppelin and Sinatra albums on. And all of the crackles and hisses and other noises take me back to my youth and act as a connection between my daughter and I that will one day be shared with my grandchildren. Try that with technology.

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You definitely lose something in the transition from one approach to another, but you also gain things that weren't possible in the old way. It's a trade-off. I'm not making a judgment on which is better, just saying that there are ways to discover things in the digital world too. And I want to say, I'm with you MktgRob, at least on some level. I love to browse books stores and record stores and even library shelves, but I've made wonderful friends and discoveries online that just wouldn't have been possible without technology. I have a dear friend and colleague I would never have met without technology, so there's something to be said for both sides. I don't see technology completely eliminating this type of interplay in the analog world. We will have both for a long time to come.

Ron

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