No Datum is an Island of Serendip

No Datum is an Island of Serendip by Jim Harris.

From the post:

Continuing a series of blog posts inspired by the highly recommended book Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, in this blog post I want to discuss the important role that serendipity plays in data — and, by extension, business success.

Let’s start with a brief etymology lesson. The origin of the word serendipity, which is commonly defined as a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise” can be traced to the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes were always making discoveries of things they were not in quest of either by accident or by sagacity (i.e., the ability to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion). Serendip was an old name for the island nation now known as Sri Lanka.

“Serendipity,” Johnson explained, “is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked. Serendipitous discoveries often involve exchanges across traditional disciplines. Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries. The challenge, of course, is how to create environments that foster these serendipitous connections.”

I don’t disagree about the importance of serendipity but I do wonder about the degree to which we can plan or even facilitate it. At least in terms of software/interfaces, etc.

Remember Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point? Its a great read but there is on difficulty that I don’t think Malcolm dwells on enough. It is one thing to pick out tipping points (or alleged ones) in retrospect. It is quite another to pick out a tipping point before it occurs and to plan to take advantage of it. There are any number of rationalist explanations for various successes, but that are all after the fact constructs that serve particular purposes.

I do think we can make serendipity more likely by exposing people to a variety of information that makes the realization of connections between information more likely. That isn’t to say that serendipity will happen, just that we can create circumstances for people that will make the conditions ripe for it.

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