I went through a gamut of emotions regarding these subjects and not because they are my last assignments for this quarter!
While listening to the On The Media podcast, Brooke, Clive and Ethan in Aspen, I became very offended in particular at Brooke’s positions about “serendipity”, the concept that we should/need to bump “accidentally” into information that is outside our normal comfort zone. Supposedly, it is needed because we shouldn’t exist merely to experience our innate tendencies to surround ourselves only with like-minded individuals, a state of “homophily”.
Regarding serendipity, podcast host, Brooke Gladstone said, “Let’s stipulate that there still is a problem, a problem that we have to address…you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. So, how do you break through one’s natural reluctance to wander off? How do you engineer serendipity?”
Why is no one asking if I WANT to wander off?
- I like my bubble (my echo chamber)!
- Why do I have to go see, learn about, be involved with what is going on in your bubble?
- Am I a bad person because I’m happily operating within my own bubble?
- As a child before I had a bubble, I saw John F. Kennedy killed, Robert Kennedy killed, Martin Luther King killed, Viet Nam was killing handsome young men and people here were mad at those who went there even though we made them go, people were crazy with free love, drugs, Woodstock and AIDS (before we even knew what it was), and Kent State students were killed.
- I like the bubble I’ve created to insulate myself from all that!
- Since the shootings just over a year ago at Marysville Pilchuck High School, I’ve opened my bubble a bit. Now students are killed at college so frequently, the last one being at my former college, that I fear walking through our campus parking lot. A crazy man shoots up Planned Parenthood, a place I used to go when I was in college in the 1970s. I could have been in Paris having dinner at a sidewalk café with friends. I could have been at work having a holiday celebration with coworkers. A new young mother could have been my neighbor before she became a mass murderer.
- I’m not liking taking a peak into other bubbles. I want back into my own.
- Is my choice to NOT live a life of serendipity harming you?
- I don’t want things accidentally serendipitously coming into my life. I don’t want to drive my car accidentally into a ditch or accidentally drive off a cliff. I want to choose where I drive and keep my car within the lines. I’m fine with straying near the edges of the lines, but not crossing outside of them.
- The music industry, Amazon, etc. want to cut through my homophily using serendipity by exposing me to various styles of music and products by using “collaborative filtering” that offers me products of people with similar purchases. Their hope in offering me items on the fringes of my norm is to gain greater profits for their companies.
So, maybe we should consider the ultimate purpose of serendipity. Is it all about profits and/or power?
Along those lines, Brooke continued about serendipity, “This is the fundamental question. How do you make people want to do something that seems to be against our very nature, which is to reach out beyond what we think we know, what we’re comfortable with, to something utterly foreign and unfamiliar?”
Shouldn’t “you” first be explaining WHY you want to do that?
- It seems like “you” want people who don’t believe what you do to listen to you and convince them so that they WILL believe what you do….so we’ll all be the same?? Sounds like using serendipity to achieve homophily. That sounds like the mentality of ISIS.
- Why can’t we just be happy letting people believe what they want (as long as they are not hurting others because of their beliefs)? Why do we have to PULL them into our sphere because of ENGINEERED “accidental” serendipity?
In Homophily, an article by Aaron Retica published in The New York Times Magazine, he said that to create serendipity, he invited us to check out the online book cataloger, UnSuggester powered by LibraryThing, which identifies the book least likely to share a library with the book you mention. When I input the most recent book I’ve read, I got no returns. When I put in “Cinderella”, I received 96 other Disney books. I was expecting something more along the lines of wicked step mothers, not Toy Story and The Lion King.
Oliver Burkeman is so passionate about these topics that his article in The Guardian is titled This Column Will Change Your Life. “We long to have our opinions confirmed, not challenged, and thus, as the Harvard media researcher Ethan Zuckerman puts it, ‘Homophily causes ignorance.’”
- We innately LONG to have our opinions CONFIRMED (not challenged) = we WANT homophily!
- So how does achieving that make us ignorant?
- If striving to achieve homophily is what we function in naturally, why are we trying to change that? Is there a problem with it now that wasn’t there in the past?
Burkeman goes on to say, “Technology, Zuckerman argues, risks making things worse: on the internet, most obviously, it’s possible to exist almost entirely within a feedback loop shaped by your own preferences.” It’s my opinion that the advent of the internet has exposed us to much more serendipity than at any other point in our lives and we are bombarded with it nearly every time we touch a website or application. Serendipity is an advertiser’s dream come true.
Ethan Zuckerman, the Ethan in the previously mentioned podcast, opened my eyes a bit more and serendipitously got me out of my homophily bubble in his article, “Homophily, Serendipity, Xenophilia”.
He mentions that Cass Sunstein helped conduct a study that demonstrated deliberation of political issues with like-minded people leads subjects to a more politically polarized stance…. and that in a political context, this could be a bad thing.
- Have you watched presidential debates lately? Debating with non-like-minded people leads subjects to become even MORE politically entrenched in their current polarized stance.
- How can anyone get elected without homophily?!!
Zuckerman discussed Nat Torkinton’s suggestion that designers who want to engineer serendipity may want to include “less relevant, but also likely to be interesting” recommendations, searching for ways to deliver “serendipity”, which he defines as “pleasantly surprising the user”. It’s one thing to surprise someone – it’s another to surprise someone helpfully.
If Brooke Thompson had said that in her podcast, maybe I would not have been so offended by the premise of serendipity.
Zuckerman introduced readers to Xenophiles, people “who are genuinely fascinated by the very breadth, complexity and difference of the world…uniquely equipped to thrive in a globalizing world and that cultivating xenophilia should be both a personal priority and an aspect of a nation’s educational and diplomatic strategy.” I firmly agree.
He went on to say that Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, who works with Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, claims that we suffer from a “caring problem”, the difficulty of really caring enough about people in another part of the world to engage with news from that community. Now my light bulbs are heating up.
He mentioned that fear, greed/opportunity and guilt are the three basic paths to get people to pay attention. Then he mentioned the problems in Somalia – “Let’s not ignore another Rwandan genocide.” Lights on! I remember it well and how the Rwanda internal civil war intent to kill 10,000 people a day for 100 days nearly succeeded, killing over 800,000, while the world silently watched, unmoved to action. Zuckerman’s serendipitous entrance into my life made me awaken from my homophily slumber.
As I finished reading his article, I glanced at the right sidebar on his website and in the Recent Posts saw “Urgent: Reports that Bassel Khartabil has been sentenced to death, November 13, 2015”. There it is again – trying to get me out of my bubble. But now I see the clear intent of serendipity – it’s a call to action. It may be for profits, it may be for power, it may be for help.
Bassel Khartabil is a leading figure in the Syrian open source software community, imprisoned by the Syrian government since March 2012. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary detention is working for his immediate release. He has been invited to join the MIT Media Lab with Zuckerman and Ito as a research scientist to continue his work building 3D models of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, whose ruins have been destroyed by ISIS. He’s a designer making 3-D models like my classmates. He is sentenced to die. He’s in my bubble now. I don’t know what more I can do except to pray for his release, his health physically and mentally, the efforts of those who are working to free him, his wife who is a human rights attorney and can’t free her own husband. Maybe there is more that I can do.
May serendipity touch us all.
Burkeman, O. (2009, January 29). This Column Will Change Your Life. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/31/oliver-burkeman-column-homophily
Gladstone, B. (2009, September 4). Brooke, Clive and Ethan at Aspen. On The Media [Podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.onthemedia.org/story/132486-brooke-clive-and-ethan-at-aspen/
Retica, A. (2006, December 10). Homophily. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/magazine/10Section2a.t-4.html?_r=1
Zuckerman, E. (2008, April 25). My heart’s in Accra: homophily, serendipity, xenophilia. Retrieved from http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/04/25/homophily-serendipity-xenophilia/
Zuckerman, E. (2015, November 13). Urgent: Reports that Bassel Khartabil has been sentenced to death. Retrieved from http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/11/13/urgent-reports-that-bassel-khartabil-has-been-sentenced-to-death/