Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Serendipity Effect

The Serendipity Machine

David Green begins the 1st chapter of his brilliant book “The Serendipity Machine” with: “It’s risky business to make predictions about the future of technology” and than he goes on to demonstrate it by referring to IBM’s founder’s prediction about the future of computers. We know how off the mark Tom Watson was. This poor prediction is often quoted by many. Fair enough or is it? Tom Watson predicted 5 computers. What about the other crystal ball gazers? What did they predict? The point here is that whilst it is risky business to make predictions, the mankind owes the risk takers its existence. I submit that taking risk and erring on the risky side is still far less perilous than hiding under a rock. I’m not suggesting here that David Green mocks Watson. On the contrary, as you read Green's book the Watson’s prediction exemplifies as well as amplifies the serendipity effect. For what did Watson have besides his experience and vision to make such prediction?

With all the retrospection we have today we keep wondering how Watson could screw up so badly, yet I see no evidence that most of today’s visionaries’ view is any less myopic than those who had no such retrospection. We have now all the high tech gizmoes, quirky algorithms and fancy models; are we any better predictors of the future technology? I doubt it. In fact some very obvious realities are still viewed with amazement. For example the amazement about the “incredibly fast” take-up of the Internet in the recent decade. The Internet has been around for many decades and was fast becoming an archaic technology until the introduction of graphical browsers. Once PCs became affordable and the GUI browsers were pulled over the telent and its clumsy IBM variant TN3270 the fast take-up just had to be a natural thing. What’s so amazing about seeing a thirsty crowd rushing to a well? If anything, it is more amazing that WWW and GUI browsers were introduced so late. With the rollout of affordable PCs, WWWed content and the interaction complexity dropped to clickable level it would be extremely amazing if the fast rate of the Internet take-up wasn’t huge.

Often the truly surprising discoveries get overlooked, ignored or oversimplified because we focus too much on making everything simple. To quote H.L.Mencken: “ For every complex problem, there is an answer that is short, simple and wrong.” It seems we get amazed by huge numbers – it is simple - without the context behind those numbers, which is complex.

I started this deposition with Green’s 1st chapter. I may as well end it with Green’s last chapter (ch. 12) where he begins it with a quote from Peter Nelson “One of the problems the Internet has introduced is that in the electronic village all the village idiots have Internet access.”
The serendipity effect as Green describes it in his book is astonishingly beautiful and truly amazing, until we become obsessed with sensationalisaition of the trivial and the typical whilst being beset by complex problems and phenomenal phenomenon we choose to trivialise. "It is serendipity gone mad." (David Green).

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