The AISB held a conference on Serendipity at Strawberry Hill House in May. (Owing to pressure of work with The Portrait Machine, I have only just got round to blogging this.) Horace Walpole, who built the house and filled it with art objects, also introduced the term serendipity into the language.
I went largely to hear Jasia Reichardt, curator of the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. The thing I remember most about her enthralling talk was the enthusiasm: there was a queue around the block to get in to the ICA, and many people felt they were at the edge of something really impressive and world-changing. This is what fascinates me about that period. The wild sci-fi expectations of the pioneers have gone (see this post), even the pioneers are forgotten; and words like ‘cybernetics’ have gone out of fashion. But in fact their dreams have been realised, many times over. It just doesn’t seem all that revolutionary today: we accept and expect instant communication, big data, machine learning, etc.
The afternoon keynote speaker was an elderly Dutchman of whom the least said the better. The theme of the conference was mostly about engineering serendipity into machine processes – eg search processes. At the moment, many ‘recommendation engines’ make their suggestions based on comparing you with other searchers: it is a logical process. Serendipity is not, presumably , a logical process: so can it be reproduced by a machine? The conference programme is here.
One speaker referred to Douglas Hofstadter’s ideas on slippage: “The triggering of prior mental categories by some kind of input — whether sensory or more abstract — is, I insist, an act of analogy-making. Why is this? Because whenever a set of incoming stimuli activates one or more mental categories, some amount of slippage must occur (no instance of a category ever being precisely identical to a prior instance). Categories are quintessentially fluid entities; they adapt to a set of incoming stimuli and try to align themselves with it. The process of inexact matching between prior categories and new things being perceived (whether those “things” are physical objects or bite-size events or grand sagas) is analogy-making par excellence.” (see here.)
One speaker (sorry, can’t read my notes…) also mentioned Yossarian Lives, which describes itself as “…a creative search engine for explorers. Yossarian makes the process of generating new ideas faster, while also improving its quality. This creative search engine helps people discover new perspectives, conceptual directions, creative insights, and allowing collaboration and feedback from a creative global community.” It looks interesting but so far I have not had time to explore. There’s a summary on Wikipedia. (I tried it: interesting as a sort of guided brainstorming, but £20 per month if you want the full feature set.)
Diarmuid O’Donoghu spoke about Dr Invnetor which claims: “Dr Inventor will act as a personal research assistant, utilising machine-empowered search and computation to bring researchers extended perspectives for scientific innovation by informing them of a broad spectrum of relevant research concepts and approaches, by assessing the novelty of research ideas, and by offering suggestions of new concepts and workflows with unexpected features for new scientific discovery”. I’ve tried this briefly but need to spend more time to understand it
Eilidh Mckay spoke about an art exhibition which tried to imagine what a serendiptologist might do all day, and what his study might look like. Her dissertation on serendipity and Bergson is available here.
Serendipity is a ‘post hoc’ phenomemon, like stupidity. (At the time you may not notice anything: it becomes obvious later on that something was serendipitous.) Conversely though, you have to recognise the moment as it arrives and act on it.
Strawberry Hill House is small but spectacular, in a densely packed glowing way. In one sense it reminds me of Lord Leighton’s house – a temple of culture and art. Cultural capital, as sociologists would put it – though Walpole was not an artist and had other sources of income, so he was able to do pretty much what he liked. I’ve included some pictures in this post. They are not about serendipity, but they serendipitously make the page look brighter and more interesting.