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.
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.
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.