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Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being. (Albert Camus)
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    Serendipity – Inadvertently sampling the non-obvious
    Project: Polytopia
    "Oh, to be alive in such an age, when miracles are everywhere, and every inch of common air throbs a tremendous prophecy, of greater marvels yet to be."

    Walt Whitman

    And what marvels we have in front of our very own eyes! Marvels of technology and science we could not have foreseen but always desired, marvels of understanding and knowledge we could not fathom just a moment ago, and yet in a very real sense at least for some of us, rational beings in the age of hyper-connectivity, most of these are expected if not outright obvious, the problem of course is that obviousness and banality take huge chunks of our time and attention, diminishing as it were the possible amount of serendipity which is in a sense the reason we apply ourselves to the seeking of the new , of the curious, of the inexplicable and perchance the delightfully illuminating.
    It is my view that the freshness we desire in our thought and the sensations of enchantment we experience in positive surprises are the foundations of a healthy mind leading us towards a healthy civilization.
    In this regard the rise of our cyber-civilization, admittedly in its embryonic stage is but a small step towards a greater nuanced understanding of the world we live in, and a deeper comprehension of our peers and ourselves; a small step but carrying immense implications.
    With this I think that we have developed a certain blasé’ attitude, a confident nonchalance with regard to that which may make a difference, and by this attitude we may perhaps gain an infinite amount of knowledge at our fingertips but lose the original reason for which we have developed all this.
    At present we are in fact worshipping the obvious to such an extent that for all practical purposes, we rehash that, which is apparent, understandable and palpable, to the detriment of our exercise of innovation.
    As I see it, part of what may change this attitude of nonchalance starts with:


    Un-worshipping the obvious

    I love the term serendipity; it is one of those words that carry a certain mystique to their construct, as if somehow, somewhere, there exists a realm of fairies ready to show us the way in unexpected fashion.
    Serendipity is quite unlike any other word in that it points to a real world phenomenon of mind that seems to provide us with an indication to something else.
    This ‘something else’, carries a set of characteristics that are not immediately apparent, yet I think them important in our quest for ever-increasing discovery, innovation and fresh insights.

    According to the online etymology dictionary ( ) the term serendipity: was coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." The name is from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Skt. Simhaladvipa "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island."

    Assuming for the moment the initial definition of serendipity to be:
    “The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way” I think we can start and deconstruct the term to better fit our needs.

    As I see it we first must clarify what exactly it is that we desire to designate using the term serendipity, are we implying that somewhere a goddess of fortune has favored us or made us favorite in some unfathomable fashion? Do we believe that some unknowable force has created some opportunity for us? Alternatively, is it pure chance, a result of random tossing of a universal coin? Or better yet, a deeply hidden intuition, totally opaque to our immediate conscious aware perception, but that somehow result in our ‘accidentally’, encountering the unexpected?

    Do note that in most definitions serendipity involves the terms: happiness, fortune, favor, accident, chance, value, unexpected, unsought, discovery and more..

    What is so fascinating in this collection of words is the ineffable feeling that something is going on, something to which we do not have access or immediate explanation but something which might if the conditions are right, become extremely valuable to us. There is no doubt in the value of serendipity, in the history of science especially, but also in almost any field of human endeavor, the number of examples is immense and often quoted, some of the most famous examples:

    “It is true that my discovery of LSD was a chance discovery, but it was the outcome of planned experiments and these experiments took place in the framework of systematic pharmaceutical, chemical research. It could better be described as serendipity.”

    Albert Hofmann

    This is a fine example that shows some of the necessary ingredients for serendipity for it is quite obvious that was Albert Hofmann not performing said planned experiments and not containing in his intellect the required framework, the discovery would not have happened, same goes for the following example.

    “Another example of serendipity in science is associated with Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin against the serious diseases at the time. He accidentally left a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria open and a mold had got inside which had appeared to have killed around the bacteria. It turned out that it was the fungus Penicillium and he turned the fungus into a groundbreaking antibiotic. (see)

    These two examples are of a very particular kind of serendipity to which I apply the more exact terminology of “ Framework serendipity” .

    Framework serendipity has a number of characteristics that can be listed as follows:
    # Framework- or Context need be clear ( ex: chemistry)
    # The person involved need be highly knowledgeable in the given context
    # The person involved need be inherently curious and sensitive to data that does not make sense in context, in this respect I very much agree with - Isaac Asimov:
    “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny …’

    For framework serendipity to work the one most pertinent advice therefore could be framed as: stop worshipping the obvious.

    Serendipity means thus Inadvertently sampling the non obvious


    When we stop worshipping the obvious, surprise occurs.

    When we stop worshipping the obvious the first term that comes to mind is therefore: ‘surprise’ as a broad term designating all that which we do not expect yet comes into our field of perception and reveals itself to be relevant.
    Surprise is only one of the characteristics of serendipity and is far from good enough to define what it is that serendipity stands for and yet surprise, surprisingly (pun intended) has a fundamental role to play when it comes to learning, which may of course explain the great delight that minds take from surprise.

    Surprise! learning and prefrontal cortex

    Surprise makes learning more likely, as shown, for instance, by the strong distaste that often develops after a familiar food has made us sick. In a region of prefrontal cortex, brain activity varies with the amount of surprising information available to subjects during a learning task, reports a study in the October issue of Nature Neuroscience. Therefore this brain area may be involved in comparing expectations against actual events, making it a good candidate for the neural basis of surprise-dependent learning in humans.
    Paul Fletcher and colleagues at Cambridge University presented subjects with fictitious case studies during brain scanning with fMRI. Subjects were told that they should imagine that they were working for a drug company and were asked for each case to predict whether a particular drug would produce a certain syndrome. In early trials, when associations were unpredictable, subjects showed high activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Then, during learning, these responses attenuated-but reappeared with surprise violations of the learned association. Furthermore, the magnitude of the brain response to a surprise event predicted later changes in the subjects' behavior.

    (Nature Neuroscience ( )

    But is any form of surprise, serendipitous? The answer is no, for within the term serendipity lies the great adjective of ‘delight ’. In fact most of us will define a serendipitous event as a surprising and delightful event, the emphasis on delight describes the joy, pleasure and gratification involved in the new event of discovery.
    Furthermore given that we now have two particular terms to employ, surprise and delight, we need go deeper, for it is quite easy to fall prey to delusions of significance when serendipity occurs.
    We need keep a very skeptical eye concerning the meaning that might be implied by a serendipitous event and for that certain rules of clear thought need be applied.

    Not all events are serendipitous, some are happenstances (being at the right time at the right place) some are accidents (chance occurrences with no apparent value), some are surprising (unexpected occasions of recognition, not necessarily useful). However, we do have this tendency to bundle all of these different cases of events that bear similarity to each other under umbrella terms such as serendipity or luck, but if we do so, we risk the very real danger of flattening our sense-thought procedures.
    Not all random events of discovery are created equal and not all events are serendipity events, we do however desire more serendipity events if for no other reason than the fact that serendipitous events have an inherent tendency to increase creativity and develop new connections where none were perceived before.

    Are all forms of creativity, serendipitous events? Of course not, but we do have this tendency to assign a high level of serendipity to creative manifestations, if only because of the opacity of the creative process in our minds.

    That is why we may need a new definition for Serendipity

    Serendipity a new definition:

    Serendipity is a term designating an event of change, the event cannot be correlated directly to previous acts that lead to it and thus appears to be of an accidental nature or random processes. These appearances lead the person involved to experience a state of joy, delight or indeed happiness. The sensation of experience in these conditions may be left as such or further investigated. However to truly become an event of change a serendipity event need be plumbed and excavated for its hidden resourcefulness.
    A serendipity event contains elements of surprise, but not just any surprise will do, not ‘everything goes’, but only elements of surprise that are highly relevant to the person involved in a context sensitive environment.
    A serendipity event will always delight, by this implying that a serendipity event is simultaneously emotional, sensual, intersubjective and relational.
    A serendipity event is characterized by a juxtaposition of apparently unrelated contexts and forces, engendering inferential insights, potentially changing the goal or direction of the preceding event.

    To my understanding serendipity as such cannot be engineered, what can be done belongs to the realms of Ambientation and Infocology. In other words, it is our task to create informational ecologies or infocologies that are intrinsically geared towards serendipity. We may call this serendipity facilitation, or serendipity enhancement, these will potentially yield a larger number of serendipity events that can be mined for meaning, excavated for patterns or plowed for further research and indications of unseen options.
    Serendipity facilitation is not an exact science for it must follow the unstable and indeterminate motion of our mind narrative, at each junction adding or subtracting from the ambient infocology as much or as little as is possible without destroying the contours of the given context.

    The serendipity event can be amplified or deconstructed but always contains the seeds of a new understanding or a new kind of pleasure, that ‘makes sense’. The correlated infocology need maintain a set of tools that can imply from and entail into a new set of coordinates that may feed back into the event of serendipity.

    Between expectation and surprise therein lay serendipity

    Serendipity and the web

    The net is in continuous flux and thus does not inherently increases or decreases the possible amount of serendipitous events. The fact of having an immense amount of information readily thrown upon us is not in itself a guarantee of serendipity.
    We cannot micro-manage serendipity nor macro manage it; in fact the greatest advantage proposed by the concept of serendipity is that it is inherently unmanageable.

    And yet..

    A while back (that would be September 2010) E. Schmidt of Google said that :”
    “Beyond speed and personalization, the evolution of search will lead us to search occurring when you’re not even using the search engine — autonomous search, Schmidt said. What he meant by this is queries that are constantly running in the background based on activity on your various devices. He called this the “Serendipity Engine”. (via techcrunch)

    And with the advent in the past weeks of Google+ plus it appears that Google indeed desires to dominate if not the social scene at least the concept of serendipity, or so it may seem.

    I have been using the G+ network system (yes I do not call it social, but about this in a following post) for a week or so, trying to observe an increase or decrease in serendipity. As far as I can tell there is no difference at present between the usage of the G+ system and any other so called ‘socnet’ out there, the underlying infrastructure does not presently encourage serendipity events, at least not in the manner I have defined above.

    More soon.


    EndNotes:

    Some suggested readings and watch:

    Science, Serendipity and the Search for Truth (watch on youtube)

    The endangered joy of serendipity

    The modern world makes it harder to discover what you didn't know you were looking for

    By WILLIAM MCKEEN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES (Published March 26, 2006)

    Can We Please Kill This Meme Now

    Mon, Jul 25, 2011  Permanent link
    Categories: serendipity, event, non-obvious
    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    jamreilly     Mon, Jul 25, 2011  Permanent link
    Excellent!
    Phyllotaxis     Mon, Jul 25, 2011  Permanent link
    Regardless of the topic, I always enjoy reading you, Wildcat.
    Venessa     Sat, Jul 30, 2011  Permanent link
    hello wildcat,

    a lovely piece. i've been thinking along similar lines of 'serendipity facilitation' - and i wonder how we go about designing for that.

    i am skeptical of a google search engine becoming a serendipity engine.... would the system not have to have a higher order understanding of your individual mind and its associations, the nature of your line of questioning, as well as some comprehensive picture of the pathways to solutions, in order to deliver information that would spark that 'a-ha' (or 'that's funny') moment?

    for instance.... perhaps my curiosity is around local economic development, and i'm well researched in the area and have a research methodology (hence satisfying your conditions for a 'framework serendipity') - perhaps the thing my mind in order to blaze a new synaptic pathway or reframing of a paradigm is not a specific description of a duplicatable implementation, but instead a brief mythological narrative describing a boy and his horse, and the bond they developed with one another while on an adventure in foreign lands.

    the example is intended to feel random.

    for myself, my serendipitous moments of delight and surprise occurred when seemingly disparate information came together to form something new. they were not solely related to the content area of exploration, but to my own history, my personal experience, my beliefs, my narratives. the new information that sparked the serendipity could have been related to a memory from when i was 8, a cruel/kind word that was said to me when i was 15, or an image i saw when i was 25.

    now.... how could google, or any search engine, possibly deliver me serendipitous opportunities, if it did not have access to those pieces of my psyche?

    yours in hyperconnectivity,

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