‘Serendipity Magnets’

Most of the unplanned, chance encounters that we have have little overall effect on the long-term trajectories of our lives, like little bumps or cracks on the sidewalk. Others, though,may set our lives along wildly different trajectories than we had originally planned. We might encounter our future husband or wife at a random party, on the train on the way to work, or in a café for example.  Looking back, if we had missed the train, stayed home from the party, decided not to visit a museum on a whim, these significant life diversions may have never happened to us .

When good random things happen to us, we tend to call it ‘serendipity’; when bad things befall upon us, we tend to attribute it to ‘bad luck’. While it is disputed whether or not we may not be able to actively control the balance between good and bad events that we experience in our random encounters, we do considerable control over how much randomness we let into our lives.

The amount of randomness we admit into our lives is basically directly controlled by our behaviour, and the degree to which we embrace activities that forge new, or potentially new experiences.  When we stick to the behaviour trajectories we have preivously established – whether they be simple choices like eating foods we have tried previously, to staying in locations we frequent often, to socialising with the same group of friends we see daily, we reduce the amount of randomness and newness we are likely to experience that day..

What are the long term effects of limiting or increasing randomness?  The answer to this question is uncertain; many reclusive intellectuals, like Marcel Proust, have been known to holed themselves up to isolate themselves from exposure to any ‘externalities’, so that they can concentrate on their private pursuits.  On the other hand, business majors are often taught to ‘network’ with as many other people as possible, stretching their social networks wide and thin.   What is known is that people have natural thresholds on risk aversion and how much we like new experiences.  But as we grow older, we naturally drift towards aversion to risk and new experiences, at least up to a certain age.  While it is not known specifically why this happens, there may be a number of factors that contribute; first, we accumulate more experience that guides us about the kinds of things we like and dislike, and we learn, perhaps, about the great many things that we dislike.  Second, perhaps we have more to lose, in the sense of having more money, more family, and more sense of value to life that bring about a greater fear of loss resulting from the unexpected.

Nicholas Negroponte once challenged us,  the first class of 20 or so undergraduates at the MIT Media Lab’s flagship MAS.100 course about ‘thinking digitally’, to think about ‘turn up the knob of serendipity’.  Unsure about what that meant, we all wandered away, most of us making knob-turning gestures with our wrists and thinking of delightful things that happen as a result.

Nearly 15 years later, I realise that just as there are ‘channel factors’ psychologist Ross and Nisbett discovered that so dramatically influence people’s behaviour, there are things in the world that, amplify random happenings which, while they may not filter out the bad, may bring about a slight preference for the good.  Simple examples include the kinds of watering holes that attract people that are like you to certain places; your favourite café, record store, or place to sit in the park and think.  The mere presence of certain things — good cofffée, good WiFi, power outlets, good art, organic food, may attract or repel people that you are like and that you, in turn, like.  In an urban setting, the effect of such ‘serendipity magnets’ are amplified manyfold, as the effects are tangibly visible; certain cafés that are packed next to empty ones, ‘hipster art bars’ that attract a very specific clientele, and so forth.

Café and record shop managers have known this for a long time. But as things have grown more digital, ephemeral serendipity magnets have become to emerge, those that only exist for a single day at a specific time, or in some cases, that exist in no single physical place at all, but across a number of places simultaneously, such as ’round the world hacking parties’ such as the Open Data Day that recently occurred in 20 cities worldwide.  Moreover, digital and mobile technology has begun to penetrate the physical barriers that partition serendipity, allowing people to randomly run across one another even across several streets, buildings, or even miles, with many intervening walls in between.  For this I’m referring to the many kinds of “location-based dating” apps that have emerged, perhaps the most prominent example being the gay dating app Grindr, but also to a much larger class of “place focused networking” apps like Foursquare as well, which give people awareness of where others are at a particular time.

Most of these services are currently in “Version 1.0”, meaning they are rather crude, simple, and very much unlike randomly seeing someone on a train.  People have criticised the services as being creepy, useless, annoying, and perceived as ‘only for people looking for hookups’.    But as the ideas and successes from the first generation of these systems mature, we may start to think about ways by which we can build better channel factors that achieve the good aspects of these new digital serendipity magnets, such as allowing members of a minority population (such as single gay or lesbian individuals have an increased chance of meeting one another), while designing away the bad, annoying, attention intensive and annoying features.

This is left as an exercise to the reader.

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