KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In a coffee shop, philosophy student Eric Wilcox, 20, turned down his iPod. He put aside reading Plato to contemplate a question:
Is our culture killing serendipity?
Some scholars say it is one of society’s oddest conundrums. Wilcox hadn’t thought much about it but found it interesting.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Serendipity: In its essence it’s that “aha” moment of glad and unexpected discovery. It’s an unplanned happenstance that leads to a piece of good luck or news or insight.
It’s serendipitous when you walk into a store to buy a Christmas gift and meet a clerk who becomes your future spouse. Or if you look for that book by Steinbeck in the library stacks and stumble upon a book by Sendak that opens your eyes.
But some are now wondering if technology and life’s hectic pace are somehow robbing people of those small moments of spontaneous discovery or delight.
Could it be possible in the bountiful Internet age — when rich stores of the world’s music, books, videos, news and human knowledge can be had with the click of a mouse — that in some ways our experiences are being narrowed, not broadened?
Wilcox thought. He tried to remember the last time he flipped through a bin of musical compact discs and suddenly discovered something he didn’t even know he wanted.
“Forever,” he said. “A really, really long time.”
When was the last time his friends browsed the shelves in a library looking for one book, only to discover another that was more intriguing?
“Searching [online] is so easy now,” he said, “it’s as if we don’t need that serendipity.”
Soon, other young people sipping drinks at Muddy’s Coffee Shop and walking the campus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City added their voices.
In their 20s, each had grown up in a point-and-click world with cell phones, GPS, 300 cable stations and the Internet. They harvest Google’s top choices for quick facts. They shop online and seemingly broaden their horizons using “recommender software” that categorizes their tastes based on similarly minded individuals to determine “If you liked X, you may also like Y.”
“It puts you in a box in a way,” said Micahla Brown, a 20-year-old premed student.
Researchers have begun to take notice.
“Let me assure you, a lot of us are thinking about these issues. It is that important,” said John Riedl, a leading researcher in computer science at the University of Minnesota who, in the 1990s, devised some of the first “recommender software.”
To be sure, no serious scholar doubts how much technologies such as cell phones, the Internet, cable and Wi-Fi have vastly improved life. Nor do they doubt their potential for expanding knowledge or creating new online communities or human connections.
But the technology now exists to allow people to go down the rabbit hole of their own ideas, to read material that only reinforces their own thoughts, to communicate with people only like themselves.
The threat to serendipity goes well beyond technology, experts say, to life’s pace — the global feeling of being rushed or distracted.
To be sure, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that people generally have more leisure time than they think —about five hours each day on average. In the U.S., people spend about half that time watching television. Although people often say and think they are working harder than ever, history disputes this.
“There is no evidence that we work any harder,” Darrah said. “Go back to Colonial times and read about how people worked. It was hard work.”
But there is a difference.
“We are busier today in the sense of spending more time managing more activities,” Darrah said.