The research behind The Serendipity Engine is published today as part of a report commissioned by The Nominet Trust.
The Personal (Computer) is Political is a call for a new kind of digital literacy: one in which we understand the assumptions that software developers make about our psychological and social selves, and the phenomena - like serendipity - that they seek to reproduce.
Here’s the blurb:
To be able to fully participate in our physical and digital communities requires a range of actions and understanding. The value of the technical skills of coding and programming and the creativity of making and designing digital products are well understood, but at the heart of our ambition to support young people’s digital making is understanding how digital technologies are made. This understanding can come about through the process of digital making, or of tinkering with existing digital products, but it is this understanding that is so important.
In this paper, Dr Aleks Krotoski explores the importance of such issues, looking at how an understanding of how digital tools are made can help us recognise how they afford, constrain and mediate our everyday actions.
You can read the report in full here. More on the contents of the full report is on my homepage here.
“I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern, then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.”
— This is Jonathan Ames (via Adam Gee, with whom I share an unhealthy fascination for serendipity). It represents a good example of one psychological motivation seeking serendipity: to create order out of chaos.
“Even in this era of tailored algorithms directing your online life and ‘big data’ torpedoing explanations based on karma, divinity, chance or luck, Krotoski concluded that we can still be alive to the accidental. But all a machine can do is give you some inspiration: the rest is in your hands, your heads.”
— Stephen Fry defines the final essential ingredient to serendipity, provided by today’s episode of BBC Radio 4’s Fry’s English Delight. Coincidentally (no, not serendipitously), this programme was aired mere days after The Last Bus to Serendip made its own BBC Radio 4 debut.
The Serendipity Engine is the focus of the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Last Bus to Serendip, which airs tomorrow - Thursday 5 September - at 9am.
Digital Human producer Peter McManus and I took the Engine on the road, asking some of the brightest minds in the serendipity universe across the country to help me achieve the unachievable: to create an engine that accurately predicts a happy accident.
I received this delightful message from a friend the other day:
I have been catching up on your latest work (I’ve ordered untangling the web), and I’ve been reading about your serendipity engine.
I was thinking about this in a religious context (as religion is often a place where can find long established practise that people have accepted and ‘works’ in some context).
Are you aware of the ‘divan-E-Hafez’? Iranians use this book of poetry as their inspiration for thinking about new things or making a decision. They open it at random and read the spiritual poetry on the page. They then interpret it as they like to give them a new source of direction. It is not strictly religious, as religious people will use the Quran instead of this book.
Sikhs will often do the same thing with our Holy book.
We know it doesn’t specifically answer questions, but it does provide guidance and new sources of inspiration. Could this be an ancient answer to a modern problem? ;-)
His words have pointed me in a wonderfully un-explored direction in the serendipity engine. Kat and I considered it in the first iteration of the device, but Ben and I haven’t been able to satisfactorily integrate it into mk2: the idea of divinity, karma, fate and other attributions of serendipity that involve external interceptions.
Thankfully, with the info provided by this friend, the divan-E-Hafez has been woven into the story we’re telling in The Last Bus to Serendip, the BBC Radio 4 programme about my search for the ingredients to go into a recipe for serendipity.
We’re making a BBC Radio 4 special about The Serendipity Engine! Digital Human and Last Bus to Serendip (working title) Producer Peter has pointed me to this collection of videos from University of Cambridge’s Darwin lectures, and the associated book.
Tellingly, it’s called “Fortune and the Prepared Mind”, suggesting that serendipitous encounters aren’t just accident, but accident plus human.
From the blurb:
Serendipity is an appealing concept, and one which has been surprisingly influential in a great number of areas of human discovery. The essays collected in this volume provide insightful and entertaining accounts of the relationship between serendipity and knowledge, in the human and natural sciences. Written by some of the most eminent thinkers of this generation, Serendipity explores a variety of subjects, including disease, politics, scientific invention and the art of writing. This collection will fascinate and inspire a wide range of readers, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the popular, but elusive, concept of serendipity.
An excellent article from Nautilus about the challenges of messy humans into logical processes, by way of Ben.
Some more choice quotes:
In essence, there is an answer, but there is not a solution. “By solution,” writes Cook, “we mean an algorithm, that is a step-by-step recipe for producing an optimal tour for any example we may now throw at it.”
And that solution may never come.
I should mention at this point that this article is about transportation networks across the USA, as a MacGuffin for a computer science conundrum called “the travelling salesman problem”. And here’s something interesting:
the traveling salesman problem grows considerably more complex when you actually have to think about the happiness of the salesman.
This is a lovely lesson for those people who pray to the temples of Big Data:
Powell’s biggest revelation in considering the role of humans in algorithms, though, was that humans can do it better…“We humans have funny ways of solving problems that no one’s been able to articulate,” he says.