SERENDIPITY VS. ALGORITHMS

Recently at the STREAM unconference, I sat in for a very well attended and debated discussion on this topic. Probably one of the best at the event. It had a lot of varied views; some very pro Serendipity, some very pro Algorithms. It was interesting to note how we resist being slaves to something. We look at it as an addiction or a habit to kick; much like some of our other serious ones. It seemed serendipity is so much part of our ethos that we desperately want to preserve.

Honestly, I was a bit confused with some of the comments. Unsure if my confusion was a result of me not understanding what serendipity meant; I decided to look up its meaning. Yes! I relied on an algorithm to find out.

The meaning as stated is “The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”. This got me thinking and trace back everything that I have done or discovered over the years. The process of discovery too was in question. I decided to look beyond that too. I ended up with a much larger question. Did serendipity really exist in the way it has been described? If it did then; I think it exists even now.

For a person who is very pro Algorithm; it surprises me to hear the pitfalls. Apparently we have become lazy and algorithms are to blame. It is said that we have started relying on someone’s serendipitous moment; which he/she used to build a logic and offer it for free to all of us. We tend to swear by algorithms that gives us what we want in our interest domain. It has made us less social and our willingness to learn has diminished a lot; because we have some algorithm that will give us what we want. Is it really a problem? OR are we hyper ventilating over nothing?

I started thinking of times when we didn’t have algorithms at our disposal. Honestly, was it different then? According to me algorithms always existed; in some form or the other. Information was always regulated by someone else. The only period in life where serendipity was at its purest was when we were infants. Everything was a discovery. Sight, Sound, Smell, Crawling, Walking, Speech; almost all of it was serendipity. I think that’s where it ended. The moment we started our life journey; these moments became far and few. I would want to believe that any regulation is a result of an algorithm in someone’s head. These regulations include what is right/wrong; good/bad; edible/not edible etc. The list is endless.

Times have changed. The society is different. The way we go about our life is different. It has only added to these algorithms. Today it reflects in the way we regulate our children. It’s an algorithm created in our head by life instances and information we have consumed. All these algorithms are defence mechanisms and created with an intent to yield good results. Sure there are negative algorithms as well. No point in getting into those. It is plastered all over the news.

But, I think, somewhere we have forgotten the fact that our brain can process only so much information. It can remember only so much. It can conclude only so much. If we had left things to serendipity we would be in stone-age. Every machine built for good or bad is an algorithm, isn’t it? We are reaping the benefits of it. We have progressed this far only because of these algorithms.

Today we have access to tons of information. We are clear about what we like and dislike. What our interests are. Most algorithms (including apps) are exactly what we want. Today we tend to know a lot more. We know a lot more about other cultures and people; even if its theoretical. We finish our errands much faster. We tend to validate what we know. There are innumerable benefits that we derive from these algorithms. I can just go on! None of these have been forced upon us. We have gone by recommendations or looked for algorithms that can make our life simpler in these chaotic times. This process of discovering algorithms too is serendipity aided by an algorithm. I know it sounds convoluted; but I think it’s a true representation.

An alternate logic to this subject. I think algorithms help is preserving serendipity. You might disagree; but spare a moment. It could be a case that the master algorithm in our head is making us discover/create new algorithms that will help us process information faster and make these serendipitous moments more frequent. It could also be a case where we are using algorithms to everything that is mundane and thereby giving a chance to experience serendipity. In fact; if you observe closely; we delink from algorithms at various points; because inherently we do not the aspect of serendipity in us to die.

Earlier serendipity lead algorithms. Now algorithms leads serendipity.