Monday, March 19, 2012

Fortuituous Discovery

A friend of mine was searching through his contact list for a colleague who happened to have the same first name as his (Seth).   As he searched for this contact, he noticed how many of his contacts shared his first name, which is only moderately common in the US.  His curiosity got the better of him and he looked through all of his contacts to count the ones that were named Seth. 

I bring this up today because I am concerned that we are getting too good at getting the information we need very accurately, quickly, and precisely. We now have powerful search engines, business analytics, and filters.  Companies have comprehensive profiles of us and sophisticated algorithms that figure out exactly where we want to go next or what would be a perfect match for what we are looking for.  How could this possibly be bad? 

Well, as in the example I described above, sometimes we find something even better through fortuitous, random, unexplainable happenstance.  If he had found the contact immediately, he wouldn't have gone on his "Seth" quest.  If we always get right to where we are going, when will we take the road less traveled, the unfamiliar fork in the road, the thorny thicket, etc?  This will make us very efficient but not nearly as creative.  It is the random factor that gives humans the advantage over computers.  It is what gives us humor and poetry.  It is what makes us innovative and artistic. 

Take for example the announcement this week that Britannica is cancelling its eponymous encyclopedia.  I am not sure how many of you remember flipping through encyclopedias to find a topic that we were assigned in 4th grade social studies for a report.  While we were on our way to “the chief agricultural products of sub-Saharan Africa,” we had to flip through half of the A section to find Africa, some of the S section to find Saharan, maybe back to A to find agriculture.  Maybe we looked through E to find exports.  Along the way the animal lover might have been attracted by the pages on elephants and antelopes.  The scientist might have been distracted by etymology and astronomy.  The athlete stopped at Ebbet’s Field and the Astrodome.  Who knows? 

My point is simply that this wouldn't happen when the target is immediately available.  I wonder what is lost. . . . .