On the temporary suspension of serendipity
All is managed and coordinated in the world of synchronous remote activity.
Serendipity is among the casualties of COVID-19. We no longer bump into one another in the hallway at the office. We don’t run into familiar faces at the pub. Cloistered away in lockdown, the odds of us meeting in public through chance and happenstance are all but reduced to nil. Before the pandemic, I had never considered how crucial random encounters are to the social fabric of community.
It is as if we are living in the real-life version of a twisted sociological thought experiment: how would people behave if you eliminate their potential for unstructured and unplanned encounters with one another? What would a world without serendipity look like? What happens to the emotional well-being of humans when virtually every encounter they have with one another must be pre-planned and scheduled in advance?
Workplaces, community hubs, and third spaces all share this trait in common: you just don’t know who you might run into before the end of the day. For those of us who are now privileged or restricted to our dwellings, each day presents very little in terms of surprises. Every social interaction is orchestrated, timed, and planned. Not to mention digitally mediated in most cases.
Online, a virtual universe of faux serendipity beckons. Commercially optimized algorithm exploit our attention to slide in as much advertising as possible. No matter where we turn, the social world is coordinated and managed, either by us or by others. It is all choreographed ahead of time, like a kind of nightmarish flash mob or Glee episode. Adapting to ever more prescriptive technologies, we coordinate ourselves more rigidly. Zoom meetings are moderated. Interactions amount to exchanges on a timeline. Life becomes a series of calendar invites.
This loss of serendipity, at least temporarily, amplifies the notion that some aspect of our social identity and purpose arise in the randomness of our interactions. We might be even so bold as to hypothesize that this randomness attributes to the foundation or inception of our meaning as a social species. At least this randomness appears to play a crucial role in our collective social-emotional wellbeing.
A serendipitous encounter not only involves two people meeting in an unscheduled time and place, but it also includes the present occupations of their minds. What we say and how we say it is informed by as many random variables as the fact that we are both in this aisle of the grocery store at the same time. While I cannot do much to ease the symptoms of this serendipity pandemic, I can take some active steps to share the randomness in my mind with people who might’ve been subjected to it if we randomly met in the grocers’ checkout line. In many respects, this intent underlines this newsletter—sharing one side of a random conversation, at least, to see what happens. This project is not a substitute for the serendipity that depends on true randomness, but perhaps a stopgap, intermediary proxy in the meantime.
While the social networks artificially orchestrate this faux serendipity (it only seems serendipitous because the algorithms are tailoring the streams to what we have already consumed) more genuine online serendipity still occurs, you just have to foster the right environment — getting away from the networks and towards more direct content consumption. Admittedly, this still leaves us without that direct face-to-face human connection but it can be enjoyed. I say "more genuine" as those whose work we consume online is likely to be already influenced by our own "human algorithm" so not truly serendipitous but the possibility still exists.