Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Algorithm for Serendipidity

I have resisted Kindle, again. Despite the state of my room, and the fact that I plan to relocate to another country sometime soon. It is slightly ironic that I am studying the relationship between technology and knowledge, and yet I am reluctant to surrender my book-reading habits to Amazon, however much I may love it. 

The reason is, for me, serendipity trumps convenience.

In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger talks about our two kinds of attempts to organise the world: Algorithmic and Social. The first one is to let the machine organise, based on a secret sauce of behavioral prediction. The other is to let our friends recommend what we may like, leveraging the possibility that we may now have a network of 'weak connections', who might be able to provide us with insights beyond our immediate environment. The holy grail of this organised world is indeed to optimally combine the two, because we can easily point to the limitations of each approach on its own: This is about machines aggregating behavioural predictions of a great network of similarly inclined people and then extrapolating statistical possibilities of me liking something (or someone). 

Yet, at the heart of all this remain the same principle that we followed ever since we felt the need to filter our knowledge: The surrender of the possibilities that come from experience. Earlier, we listened to our Gurus and friends, and followed Coffee House gossip to engage selectively with our world. The better ways that we invented today is to seek such information more passively, in one click as they say, by mining the data from around the world and listening to the wisdom of the machines. It does work perfectly to a degree, but as I have learned checking about Amazon's recommendations for me over the last 15 years that I used the service, it actually works too perfectly by shutting down all possibilities of serendipity and consigning me to a neat echo-chamber of my own walled garden.

Amazon's top recommendation for me this Christmas was a Nintendo 3DS game, as I have bought a console as a gift a few months ago. This is a perfectly logical way of predicting behaviour, and I am sure it is correct both in algorithmic and social sense. Such simple irrationalities are to be expected: we are still a long way off from building algorithms that can work out correctly the occasional quirks of human social life and unexpected (not to mention unreasonable) behaviour. One could argue that over a longer period of time, such issues can be smoothed out, but regarding this, Keynes was prescient - "In the long run, we are all dead" - and the consumer and the entrepreneur have no use for "long run". 

Indeed, this is not about Amazon making me stupid: It sure doesn't, as I look up books on it constantly to learn more about them, and also to check out similar items, recommendations and all. It is a more relative thing about how much of my reading preferences I want to give up to its algorithm. The most beautiful moments of my rather mediocre life are usually the fifteen minutes I steal from my Saturday shopping trips to stop by at the local library, where I make, more usually than not, unexpected discoveries every week. The world's information stock may be doubling every three years thanks to Digital explosion, but this is more about obscuring more than knowing more: The best moments for a book lover now-a-days is still about finding out-of-print books left untouched on Library shelves for years waiting for the perfect moment for a man with odd tastes feeling through it.

The dishevelled state of my room, I shall claim, is a design: An intentional construction of clutter, shaped and reshaped by constant churn of my interests and imagination, conversations and connections. In a world where my life is perhaps transparently viewable online, this is a little game of discovery I perhaps play with myself - with no objective other than a tame search for Nietzschian intensity - where interests and preferences must not stand in stillness, but be allowed to disappear, combine, recombine, up and down a physical stack of books, and of mind. The pristine world of Kindle, I fear, perhaps irrationally, shut me out of this stimulation, and make me a prisoner of my own reading habits.

So, in the end, I decided to keep myself a prisoner of the analog chaos - one more year perhaps! There is an element of nostalgia, surely, but also a search for the algorithm of serendipity. The point about the submersion in books (literally, as you can see) is not just about the musty smell and all that, but the physical nature of engagement (a visit to the library as opposed to online browsing) that creates a stimulation that our poor simian brains need for engagement. I would rather spend a few hours playing Plants-versus-Zombies rather than turning a zombie in my book buying.






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