Ah, serendipity. Letting chance into our lives. The joy of discovering something we didn’t even know we were looking for — or, better yet, looking for one thing and finding something more useful, more beautiful.
But serendipity is rapidly becoming a shining artifact of the past. Whodunnit? Well, Google, actually.
What’s serendipity? It’s flipping through the records in a record store, and being captured by the cover art, figuring that if Ry Cooder is playing on it, it must be good. It’s scuttling through the stacks in the library with your head canted to the side, looking for a Walter Mosley Easy Rawlins mystery, and discovering to your amazement that he’s written a whole lot of other, non-mystery books. It’s browsing the shelves of Samosa House East and buying something to take home and try out in a recipe you haven’t quite dreamed up yet. It’s what led me to stick my head into Timeless Treasures last week, where I found a an entire rack of clothing from a man of my size, with my (exquisite) taste who had either retired, died, or decided to freshen up his look.
I love chance. Not the commodified, bad-at-arithmetic kind embodied in the lottery ticket and the Las Vegas Strip. The kind that led me, as a college kid, to take my laundry to a different laundromat each week, and stay there doing my homework — because a laundromat is a great place to meet girls. The kind that leads me to take a different route whenever I go someplace I’ve been before. The kind that says “order the daily special” in Sazon restaurant, because if the chef feels like stepping out from between the lines today, I’d be a fool not to follow.
What does all this have to do with Google?
When we use Google, we are, broadly speaking looking for either:
b) A product or service.
It may seem painfully obvious, but Google doesn’t enjoy its multi-billion dollar stock market valuation because it delivers information to people like you and me for free. Remember that cardinal rule of modern life — if you think you’re getting something for free, you’re the product that’s being sold. Google sells your eyeballs to advertisers. And it categorizes your eyeballs based on what you search for.
This is a system that privileges consumption over exploration, shopping over learning. It also strangles serendipity by presenting us with results that match what Google has already come to know about us. Heaven forbid that we might experience something that we don’t already know we like!
FaceBook and Google also remove much of the serendipity from personal relationships. How many of us would have spent the time get to know people we eventually fell in love with, if we’d googled or facebooked them first? If my wife had been able to google me when we first met… yikes.