Serendipity

serendipity

Always on the lookout for stuff showing the dark side of technology, I found good example in the June 2012 issue of The Atlantic. Andrew Keen covered a new class of mobile device apps, as the headline says, “New “social discovery” apps try to engineer chance encounters. Could they spoil true serendipity?” Describing a scene in a bar, Keen writes,

After squeezing in at the bar, we slapped down our iPhones, like digital gunslingers. But as we caught up, I was distracted by a continual buzzing from her phone, which vibrated so relentlessly that it seemed to have a mind of its own. “It’s Highlight,” she apologized, switching off the device. “Have you tried it? It’s so annoying.” … I had, as it happened, tried Highlight. And Glancee, Sonar, and Banjo, a handful of the “social discovery” apps that are the latest new new thing. They allow our mobile devices to alert us to the presence of people we know, and to introduce us to people we don’t know—people the apps think we might like to meet. “Strangers,” Brett Martin, the CEO of Sonar, explained to me, “often have a lot in common.” The idea of engineering serendipity, of manufacturing good luck, used to be a science-fiction trope; now it’s the holy grail of mobile technology. The goal is to create what Andrea Vaccari, the CEO of Glancee, described to me as “surprise” and “delight.” “We want to create serendipity on steroids,” he added, unappetizingly.

These new apps operate by mining the gigantic personal databases being amassed on Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and more. They know what we “might like” better than we do. The developers of the apps think this is marvelous, assuming that it is people just like ourselves that we are most interested in. I am not so sure. As I note further below, technology always subtracts something from the world present to us at any moment. If these devices do what they are being designed to do, one’s sense of who they are will get lost. The difference, see just below, between “might like” and “like” is enormous. The latter has a possibility of authenticity coming from a reflective realization of who one is; the first produces an inauthentic response, par excellence, as action is entirely motivated by an external source.

Applying algorithms to the personal data on networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, these apps try to introduce us to nearby people whom we might like to meet—because we listed the same career on LinkedIn, say, or because we “liked” the same bands on Facebook.

As I read on, the idea of arranged marriages popped up. This Indian custom takes all the serendipity out of encountering a life partner. The impersonal technology of Glancee is replaced by the algorithms buried in the parent’s heads. They filter out the possibilities that do not fit their model of the ideal spouse for their eligible child. I used to be completely against this custom, but have gradually changed my mind as my concept of love has morphed from some mystical feeling that arises from an encounter with another to a mood of acceptance of the existence of an autonomous other. Having married a divorce lawyer, I have heard all too many stories of the failure of “love” to work its magic.

Couple that with my model of human Being as caring, and the serendipity of “falling in love” loses its punch. Serendipity does matter even here, as one still has to have an encounter with the right context. Seeking someone to care for, open to the same ideas, sharing enough of the same world to make communication and coordination work, and a set of futures that mesh sufficiently to set us as a couple on the same path is a very important step in life. But this does not require the drama of serendipity. People who meet and decide to couple up out of the love that I just described might call their first meeting serendipitous, but probably not.

These apps can be programmed to include or exclude specific people of all sorts, as the next paragraph says

Future generations of these apps might very well help us flourish in what Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, describes as the “Start-Up of You” economy—a Darwinian world in which we must continuously network to survive. But “amplifying our humanness”? Do we really want the preternatural ability to avoid entering any Starbucks where we might encounter an ex? Do we want to wonder, during a conversation with a delightful stranger, whether that person plotted our “chance” meeting? And the reverse: Do we want to find ourselves forever stalking people in airports because an app says they might be professionally valuable?

Ultimately, apps that claim to engineer serendipity seem more likely to do the reverse. Their main offense is not ubiquitous surveillance, but that they stand to destroy surprise and, with it, true serendipity. Rather than enriching our lives with unexpected encounters and genuine strangers, they threaten to take the mystery and the magic out of people we don’t know.

I don’t think that it is meaningful in the first place to connect these apps with “true serendipity” in the first place. I also don’t know what adding “true” to serendipity does for the meaning. Serendipity is strongly coupled to the concept of possibility that, to me, means simply creating something out of nothing. That’s got a bit of magic in it if you wish. The minute life becomes engineered, possibility flies away. Serendipity refers to some chance meeting during which the two (or more) people involved discover some common purpose, interest, concern or other context for coordinating action together. Such meetings are surprising and rare; most of the time we act in a context where the agenda and players are already chosen to fit that context. The magic of serendipity is in part conveyed by the surprise; it is precisely the fact that serendipity arises only out of the context of some immediate intentionality.

But so what. If one is missing somebody in their lives, whether a potential life or sex partner, customer, or whatever, and intentionally seeks to fill the hole, any means to enhance the likelihood of finding that somebody should be helpful. It doesn’t make a lot of difference whether the means is an app on one’s smart phone or a traditional parent arranging a marriage. What counts, in this case, is success, and that depends on what follows the first meeting. The only difference I can spot is the absence an the emotional high that surprise can bring and can linger in one’s memory, continually serving to refresh the experience of whatever relationship was created.

Technology almost always diminishes one’s connections to and experience of the world, in this case, surprise. I am not overwhelmed by this particular technology, but it seems relatively harmless, giving up only an emotional experience that many would not miss. But when you add together all the missing pieces of experience and the self-consciousness they provide, the effects are great and serious. The being-in-the-world creatures we are get lost against the instrumental vision of a world where technological intervenes in actions that we are fully capable of handling, with richer outcomes, simply by ourselves.

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