Thursday, March 18, 2010

Serendipity and the Internet

Published in the Post Register in April, 2009.

The Internet offers so many advantages that it might seem a little persnickety to point out some of its flaws.

Allow me to be persnickety. For example, the Internet is invaluable for research, so long as you know roughly what you're looking for and you know how to distinguish between reliable sources and completely bogus ones (an increasingly difficult feat). The Internet is an unsurpassed tool for maintaining social and business connections and sharing certain types of information.

On the other hand, it's not so good at helping us experience the serendipitous discovery of things we hadn't been looking for. That, I humbly submit, is another reason why reading a newspaper or a magazine will always offer something different and in some ways be more valuable than getting information online.

Florida State University Professor William McKeen wrote eloquently about this a few years ago in a New York Times column:

"The modern world, it seems, is conspiring against serendipity. But we cannot blame technology. I've met this enemy, and it is us. We forget: We invented this stuff. We must lead technology, not allow technology to lead us. The world is a better and more cost-effective place because of technology, but we've lost the imperfections inherent in humanity -- the things that make life a messy and majestic catastrophe."

How often can any of us recall browsing a magazine or newspaper -- perhaps in the doctor's office waiting room or just walking through a bookstore -- and discovering something that we hadn't known anything about, having it spark our curiously and eventually opening up a whole new world to us? The precision of a search engine reduces the opportunity for that sort of spontaneous experience, and we're poorer for it.

I have an abiding passion for music -- from Bach to heavy metal -- and the Internet has been a boon to me in allowing me to listen to new types of music before I purchase the digital tracks. But I make an effort to seek out music with which I'm unfamiliar just to make sure I'm not missing anything.

Unfortunately, that's probably less true of information. I tend to stick to a handful of sources and the occasional Google search. Meanwhile, there's a lot I'm missing.

I was reminded of that when I spent a little time last weekend reading through a travel magazine. Places I'd never considered visiting suddenly found their way onto my list.

Reading the Post Register should provide a moment of serendipity or two every morning. That's something you'll likely not experience in the narrow experience of surfing the Web.

As McKeen says: "We must allow ourselves to be surprised. We must re-learn how to be human, to start again as we did as children -- learning through awkward and bungling discovery."

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