One old argument in the history of tech progress is the tragic loss of a side effect of an old technology, and that it will be lost forever with the new technology. But we can be sentimental about anything, even stupid things, things no one liked even when the technology was popular. Thanks to Nick Hornby, people of middle age bemoan the end of mix-tapes on cassettes, something I admit I miss. But does anyone remember rewinding those things? Or when the tape got caught in the tape deck, and you had to pray with a pencil in hand that you could rewind it back inside without breaking it?
The flavor of the internet age version of this retroactive argument involves the limits of the web. People who go to malls or bookstores and say there’s something magical about how you see unexpected things when you browse in physical stores and that being online takes this wonderful serendipity away. Oh, The Horror.
This NYT article, called the digital age is stamping out serendipity, takes the predictable angle that we lose when the old serendipity and sense of chance is taken away from us.
It misses how every new medium can provide a new kind of serendipity. The web itself is hypertext, perhaps the greatest form of chance and change we’ve had in ages. With a single click we move, somewhat blindly, from one website and point of view to another, and to a new page with dozens of unexpected opinions, images or ideas. There is a kind of gamble in every click. Surprise awaits us on the other side, which explains how easily you can forget what it was you were trying to do in the first place. There’s a good argument for the web being too serendipitous.
In the end, serendipity is everywhere if your curious enough to look for it. Every footnote in a book, every insect on a tree, every word in every Facebook update or blog post, has a history and a story we can investigate if we decide we’re interested in jumping into a new story.