Serendipity (Again)

Every so often, someone posts an article like Connor Simpson’s The Lost Art of the Random Find and everyone loses their shit, bemoaning the decline of big-box video, book and music stores (of course, it wasn’t that long ago when similar folks were bemoaning the rise of big-box video, book and music stores for largely the same reasons, but I digress) and what that means for serendipity. This mostly leads to whining about the internet, like so:

…going to a real store and buying something because it caught your eye, not because some algorithm told you you’d like it — is slowly disappearing because of the Internet…

…there is nothing left to “discover,” because the Internet already knows all. If you “find” a new bad thing, it’s likely on a blog that millions of other people read daily. If you “find” a new movie, like the somehow-growing-in-popularity Sharknado, it’s because you read one of the millions of blogs that paid far too much attention to a movie that, in the old days, would have gone straight into a straight-to-DVD bargain bin.

I’ve got news for you, you weren’t “discovering” anything back in the day either. It probably felt like you were, but you weren’t. The internet is just allowing you to easily find and connect with all your fellow travelers. Occasionally something goes viral, but so what? Yeah, sometimes it sucks when a funny joke gets overtold, but hey, that’s life and it happens all the time. Simpson mentions Sharknado as if it came out of nowhere. The truth of the matter is that Sharknado is the culmination of decades of crappy cult SciFi (now SyFy) movies. Don’t believe me? This was written in 2006:

Nothing makes me happier when I’m flipping through the channels on a rainy Saturday afternoon than stumbling upon whatever god-awful original home-grown suckfest-and-craptasm movie is playing on the Sci-Fi Channel. Nowhere else can you find such a clusterfuck of horrible plot contrivances and ill-conceived premises careening face-first into a brick wall of one-dimensional cardboard characters and banal, inane, poorly-delivered dialogue. While most television stations and movie production houses out there are attempting to retain some shred of dignity or at least a modicum of credibility, it’s nice to know that the Sci-Fi Channel has no qualms whatsoever about brazenly showing twenty minute-long fight scenes involving computer-generated dinosaurs, dragons, insects, aliens, sea monsters and Gary Bussey all shooting laser beams at each other and battling for control of a planet-destroying starship as the self-destruct mechanism slowly ticks down and the fate of a thousand parallel universes hangs in the balance. You really have to give the execs at Sci-Fi credit for basically just throwing their hands up in the air and saying, “well let’s just take all this crazy shit and mash it together into one giant ridiculous mess”. Nothing is off-limits for those folks; if you want to see American troops in Iraq battle a giant man-eating Chimaera, you’ve got it. A genetically-altered Orca Whale the eats seamen and icebergs? Check. A plane full of mutated pissed-off killer bees carrying the Hanta Virus? Check. They pull out all the stops to cater to their target audience, who are pretty much so desensitized to bad science-fiction that no plot could be too over-the-top to satiate their need for giant monsters that eat people and faster-than-light spaceships shaped like the Sphynx.

And as a long time viewer of the SciFi/SyFy network since near its inception, I can tell you that this sort of love/hate has been going on for decades. That the normals finally saw the light/darkness with Sharknado was inevitable. But it will be short-lived. At least, until SyFy picks up my script for Crocoroid Versus Jellyfish.

It’s always difficult for me to take arguments like this seriously. Look, analog serendipity (browsing the stacks, digging through crates, blind buying records at a store, etc…) obviously has value and yes, opportunities to do so have lessened somewhat in recent years. And yeah, it sucks. I get it. But while finding stuff serendipitously on the internet is a different experience, but it’s certainly possible. Do these people even use the internet? Haven’t they ever been on TV Tropes?

It turns out that I’ve written about this before, during another serendipity flareup back in 2006. In that post, I reference Steven Johnson’s response, which is right on:

I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.

This whole thing basically amounts to a signal versus noise problem. Serendipity is basically finding signal by accident, and it happens all the damn time on the internet. Simpson comments:

…the fall of brick-and-mortar and big-box video, book and music stores has pushed most of our consumption habits to iTunes, Amazon and Netflix. Sure, that’s convenient. But it also limits our curiosity.

If the internet limits your curiosity, you’re doing it wrong. Though I guess if your conception of the internet is limited to iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, I guess I can see why you’d be a little disillusioned. Believe it or not, there is more internet out there.

As I was writing this post, I listened to a few songs on Digital Mumbles (hiatus over!) as well as Dynamite Hemmorage. Right now, I’m listening to a song Mumbles describes as “something to fly a mech to.” Do I love it? Not really! But it’s a damn sight better than, oh, just about every time I blind bought a CD in my life (which, granted, wasn’t that often, but still). I will tell you this, nothing I’ve listened to tonight would have been something I picked up in a record store, or on iTunes for that matter. Of course, I suck at music, so take this all with a grain of salt, but still.

In the end, I get the anxiety around the decline of analog serendipity. Really, I do. I’ve had plenty of pleasant experiences doing so, and there is something sad about how virtual the world is becoming. Indeed, one of the things I really love about obsessing over beer is aimlessly wandering the aisles and picking up beers based on superficial things like labels or fancy packaging (or playing Belgian Beer Roulette). Beer has the advantage of being purely physical, so it will always involve a meatspace transaction. Books, movies, and music are less fortunate, I suppose. But none of this means that the internet is ruining everything. It’s just different. I suppose those differences will turn some people off, but stores are still around, and I doubt they’ll completely disappear anytime soon.

In Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, the character Daniel Waterhouse ponders how new systems supplant older systems:

“It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently … have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. … And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher’s Stone.” (page 639)

In this Slashdot interview, Stephenson applies the same “surround and encapsulate” concept to the literary world. And so perhaps the internet will surround and encapsulate, but never destroy, serendipitous analog discovery. (hat tip to the Hedonist Jive twitter feed)

2 thoughts on “Serendipity (Again)”

  1. Well said. Bravo. (I liked it)

    Also, want to throw another book your way (you need more). “Sleepless in Hollywood” by Lynda Obst. It’s ostensibly about the transition from seasonal blockbuster to international franchise, but goes a bit deeper than that. Fairly short book, so you could probably squeeze it in somewhere.

  2. Thanks! That book sounds interesting. I wonder if there’s an audiobook version. Taking a trip soon, and this sounds like it would be perfect listening (I prefer nonfiction for audiobooks)… Will look into it in any case…

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