Is digital numbing, or augmenting?

adam-grenfield-human-based-technolgy-serendipity

A couple of blog posts this last week, by garethk and madebymany, have been responding to a discussion on the role digital plays when it comes to serendipity. The interesting thing is that both sides of the discussion are right; they are just discussing two different kinds of “digital”, the one based in the technology era and the one growing out of the human era.

Erin McKean has a lovely take on serendipity in her talk at TED:

    “Online dictionaries right now are paper thrown up on a screen … in fact online dictionaries replicate almost all the problems of print except for searchability. And when you improve searchability you actually take away the one advantage of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is finding something you weren’t looking for because finding what you were looking for is so damn difficult.”

Erin’s talk is about rethinking the dictionary, and discusses the tool as it is built on technical and informational features, not human abilities. This has been the case for a lot of the stuff built in the first ten years of digital, there just wasn’t any interest in finding out what humans would do, only what technology could.

Most of the stuff from the early tech-based web era is non-human and “non-serendipital”. But the new social stuff, and the stuff designed with human activities and behaviors in mind – from the ground up. Is presenting a new league of beautiful and fruitful serendipity.

As Adam Greenfield states in his “The long here, the big now, and other tales of the networked city” presentation from last years Picnic:

    “I happen to believe such projects start with the potentials of technology, rather than an accurate understanding or map of human desire.

    I tend to believe they duck the real questions, the hard questions…the meaningful questions about the nature of the metropolitan experience, and how humans beings have always used these wonderful platforms for collective action and conviviality we call cities.”

Adam Greenfield at PICNIC08: The Long Here, the Big Now, and other tales of the networked city from PICNICCrossmediaweek on Vimeo.

“Digital didn’t change anything, but everything digital changed.” And the stuff we are seeing now, built around people, is different, and presenting us with some truly magnificent ideas, that probably is more similar to what digital will become in the future. Which is a richer better experience, more based on human collective action, and richer in both serendipity and, as Adam puts it, “conviviality”.

Conviviality: (of an atmosphere or event) friendly, lively, and enjoyable.

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