We are given the words we need when we need them. “Serendipity” snuck into the language just 250 years ago, in 1754, when Horace Walpole, the novelist, coined the word in a letter he sent to an acquaintance named Horace Mann. Walpole was inspired by a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which tells the story of a group of traveling royals who, as Walpole puts it, “were always making discoveries … of things which they were not in quest of.” It took a long time, though, for the word to make the leap into common usage, as Robert Merton and Elinor Barber explain in their book The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. They could find only 135 instances of the word appearing in print in the 200 years after Walpole coined it. But from 1960 on, its use exploded. As Richard Boyle writes in a review of Merton and Barber’s book,
Serendipity appears in the titles of 57 books between 1958 and 2000 … Furthermore, the word was used in newspapers 13,000 times during the 1990s and in 636,000 documents on the World Wide Web in 2001. The English-speaking world has gone overboard for the word.
Apparently, something happened to us 50 or so years ago that gave us a keener appreciation of – or need for – the serendipitous. Maybe it had something to do with the prosperous calm we were granted after two calamitous world wars. Or maybe it was an offshoot of the let-the-sunshine-in sensibility of the beats and their hippie offspring.
No sooner, though, did the word become popular than its debasement began. It drifted quickly toward vagueness and then, as Merton writes in an afterword to his book, vacuousness:
For many, it appears, the very sound of serendipity rather more than its metaphorical etymology takes hold so that at the extreme it is taken to mean little more than a Disney-like expression of pleasure, good feeling, joy, or happiness. For those who have consulted dictionaries for the word, its typical appearance between serenade and serene may bring a sense of tranquility and unruffled repose. In any case, no longer a niche-word filling a semantic gap, the vogue word became a vague word.
Boyle brings the story up to date:
So it is that in 1992 the word serendipity was emblazoned on the cover of a catalogue for women’s underwear without further explanation. That in 1999 a review of the autobiography of Sir Alec Guinness drew attention to the actor’s “serendipitous writing style (sly, witty, elegant).” That in 2001 the following was to be seen on the Internet: “Serendipity: When love feels like magic you call it destiny. When destiny has a sense of humour you call it serendipity.” And that in 2002, again on the Internet, we find “Serendipity Airedales, home of the top winning Best in Show Airedale in the history of the breed.”
And then, in the spring of 2006, Eric Schmidt preannounces a new Google service called Serendipity, which “tells you what to type.” Soon after hearing Schmidt’s speech, I serendipitously stumbled onto a blog post on the subject of – you guessed it – serendipity by Steven Johnson, author of the popular book Everything Bad Is Good for You (we are also given the books we need when we need them). Johnson was annoyed by a sentimental little op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times by a journalism professor named William McKeen, who argues that serendipity has become an “endangered joy.” Writes McKeen:
We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull … It’s all about time. So many inventions save us time – whether it’s looking for information, shopping for clothes or checking what’s on television. Time is saved, but quality is lost. When you know what you want – or think you do – you lose the adventure of discovery, of finding something for yourself.
Nonsense, replies Johnson:
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 … 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’s no accident that BoingBoing is the most popular blog online – it’s popular because it’s an incredible randomizer, sending you off on all these crazy and unpredictable paths.
No, says Alan Jacobs, in a comment on Johnson’s post, McKeen’s right and Johnson’s wrong:
My particular situation is that of a scholar, and I think Steven is – what’s the technical term? – nuts to think that I now have more serendipity than I did before. When I used to rely on print dictionaries or encyclopedias, I would very often forget what I was looking for because, in thumbing the pages, I would stumble across all sorts of interesting words or topics, which would lead me to look up other interesting words or topics, along the way to which I would be distracted by yet other words or topics that I had never seen before.
A fellow named Nick (no relation) also begs to differ:
I disagree, Steven. The kind of surfing you describe is still narrow, even if it feels broad. You can’t just say “I read lots of sites: Boingboing, Metafilter, Waxy, and Kottke!” The article said it best: you’re finding exactly what you’re looking for. BoingBoing’s interesting-link bounty, diverse as it might be, cannot be called “serendipity”. When you pointed your browser there you knew what you were gonna get: links to Wonderful Things. It’s a carefully curated randomness, as selected by Cory And The Gang. You don’t expect them to start posting things that lie outside their purview, like sports scores, financial analysis, or Oprah articles.
Personally, I come down right in the middle: I think Johnson’s absolutely right, and utterly wrong. I do think the web has expanded the sum total of serendipity in the world. I come across a heck of a lot more random stuff today than I did before I went online. So, yeah, the web is probably “the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.” Still, though, I find myself agreeing with McKeen when he talks about the lack of “surprise” in internet surfing and, even more so, with Nick when he talks about the web’s “carefully curated randomness.” Once you create an engine – a machine – to produce serendipity, you destroy the essence of serendipity. It becomes something expected rather than something unexpected. Looking for serendipity? Just follow these easy links! Serendipity becomes a game of trivial pursuit. It becomes an end in itself rather than an unanticipated surprise that leads you to some greater understanding. Serendipity should be a doorway, but on the web it’s a kitschy picture stuck on your refrigerator with a magnet.
What we’re seeing, I guess, is the final stage in the process of the debasement of the word “serendipity” and maybe even of the very idea of serendipity. The last act will be the unveiling of Google Serendipity. That will mark the end of serendipity’s brief travels and adventures, the moment when serendipity becomes systematized out of existence.
EPILOGUE: I’ve been testing out Yahoo Publisher Network ads on my RSS feed, and I just noticed that at the end of the feed for this post appears an ad for “Serendipity Bedding.” Who says algorithms don’t have a sense of humor?
UPDATE: Steven Johnson replies.