Searching for Serendipity

Alexander McQueen exhibition

I’ve always thought serendipity is important — something that I’m not sure I’d normally even bother to mention. But a couple recent things have made me want to not only build more experiences that support increased serendipity, but find ways in get more of it in my life, too.

Ethan Zuckerman’s CHI keynote “Desperately Seeking Serendipity” is so full of interesting ideas that I’m having trouble getting it out of my mind. He’s taken his talk (the slideshare is above) and expanded it into a full, and quite detailed, blog post. His premise is that, as humans, we desire stimulation and to be presented with unexpected ideas and opinions. And he gives a great collection of examples, historical and digital. (And even some evidence to the contrary.) For instance, he points how Twitter and Facebook offer it, but with very different ways of integrating it into their services (hint: Facebook’s page browser is very hard to find).

Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble” talks about how, as sites (and advertisers) better understand our preferences, the customized and personalized versions of content we receive, are giving us an increasingly distorted and skewed view of the world. This effect is pretty visible when using a site like Facebook or Twitter — where we just see stuff from people we choose. But it’s more disturbing when it applies to the news we receive. His website lists 10 ways to help reduce your filter bubble. (And here is a recent interview with him.)

So, supporting Zuckerman’s premise that cities encourage serendipity, over the weekend I was in New York and, walking past The Met museum, decided to go see the Alexander McQueen exhibition. And what a good decision that was! It was a spectacularly designed installation — presenting his work in various contexts, and with accompanying quotes, that really helped me understand better what he was trying to do. Neither the exhibition, nor his work, involved interactivity, but it did feature clips from shows he did with technology that were fascinating. The first was a kind-of chess game with models moving between squares on a board as the moves were called (a metaphor how the fashion industry works?). The second featured robot sprayers confronting a model, and then spraying her dress with paint (an experiment in the idea that anyone can create the kind of beauty McQueen could).

All inspiring stuff.