Serendipity, Shirky and Alan Jacobs

A commonly heard objection to the internet is that serendipitous browsing doesn’t happen as it did with print. People only read what they know to look for and their knowledge and outlook is therefore narrower than in earlier eras.

I can see the risk and I haven’t done any systematic research, but I can only say from anecdotal experience that the “narrowing perspective” theory hits two problems. When you are surfing the net, you can move forwards, backwards and sideways in knowledge at a speed that isn’t possible in print. While some people think that this increases the risk that long texts are not read enough, more knowledge is available more quickly to more people.

Second, I don’t proceed through web-borne information in a straight line and nor do most people I know. We zig-zag, get distracted, follow threads, loops and links down paths we never knew existed. In other words, the web has its own version of serendipity; it’s just a different one.

This is a verbose introduction to a fine review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus by Alan Jacobs which I found in just such a serendipitous wander. (New readers on Shirky’s book start here or here.) Note Jacobs’ use – don’t know if it’s his coinage or not – of the splendid term “hive-mind”.


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