Surfacing coincidence

An interesting speculation, attributed by Matt Mcalister to Matt Jones, on the way that internet applications (not least blogging) can “surface coincidence” or manufacture serendipity.

Ive blogged before about the way in which massive databases can retrospectively identify what we did from day to day. If you choose to go back through them, with the right tools, you have something like the Recording Angel.

However this posting is about doing the search in the present tense: finding coincidences that are useful now and will influence the future rather than just trace the past. Dopplr is a good example – a database which helps frequent business travellers to check if they are in the same area as their friends. (Though having spent the last week in Ras Laffan, Im not sure Id have found many of my friends there.)

Ive often thought that Ebay is another good example: it puts buyers and sellers together in a way that would have been unthinkable before, and so contributes to a more efficient and environmentally friendly disposal of used goods.

Sam Ruby on Intertwingly says: “Serendipity is all about making fortunate discoveries by accident. You cant automate accidental discoveries, but you can manufacture the conditions in which such events are more likely to occur.”
Intertwingly itself, according to Wikipedia, is a reference to the term intertwingularity, created by Ted Nelson in 1974: “EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly…. Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial. Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged—people keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they cant.”

Gets quite philosophical here. Do things exist beyond our knowledge of them? I dont know, I havent even had my breakfast yet.

However our knowledge does affect the way we act in the world. To give a trivial example, Ive often thought Id like to own one or two books by Henry Landau. (I collect books about British Intelligence and diplomacy.) Its unlikely but possible Ill find one in a second hand bookshop some day, and if I do Ill probably snap it up. But I know that I can find several copies of all of his works, any time, by looking on Abebooks. But I dont buy them. The psychology of finding a book by coincidence is different from being able to have it whenever I want it.

Also, have you noticed that wine never tastes the same when you bring a bottle home as it did when you drank it near the vineyard, in Alsace, say, or Stellenbosch, or the Hunter Valley? I dont think its that the wine doesnt travel: its that our expectations change. A maunfactured coincidence doesnt arouse the same set of emotions as a real conicidence?

But the fact is that Im writing this posting because my RSS reader picked up an entry about coincidence. Perhaps the EBay model is better at explaining it: the internet allows a more environmentally friendly use of ideas, in that it is the most efficient way yet of putting ideas, and people who have them, together. It allows sharing and development where once there would only have been loneliness.

This is usually good, except
– does it prevent the emergence of strange and wonderful species (eg the duck-billed platypus evolved because it was cut off from the rest of the evolving world) and enforce conformity?
– does it encourage foolishness? – eg proanorexia websites. (See this study.)

The mechanism requires two things:
– a search engine or a means of finding what I want out of a great pile of information
– a means of signalling what Im interested in. Often now this is an RSS reader.

Increasingly also it involves automation of the exchange: a bot of some sort that identifies my interests or possible interests, and searches for the answers. For instance, if a bot knew that I was going to New York, it could check my friends travel plans via Dopplr, check my list of interests and looks for relevant events during my stay (eg an exhibition at MOMA, a meeting of a PHP user group), check the weather, etc. and present me with a complete timetable optimising my interests. Im not sure if that quite exists yet, but it could.

The difference between the bot and a good PA is that the bot has much wider and deeper reach: it can scan much more information more quickly and this amounts to a qualitative as well as a quantitative change in my potential lifestyle. Life would be much more efficient. On the other hand, I often have my best ideas when hanging about, or when on a long flight as I was last week. I took a book on PHP and didnt watch the film, and covered several pages with ideas that Ill spend much of this Christmas holiday implementing..

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