August 3, 2009
The Stupidity of Serendipity
Having just two weeks ago posted a link to what I think is a reasonably intelligent take on the importance of serendipitous discoveries in old and new media, Damon Darlin’s not-quite-an-essay in the NYT is by comparison offensively stupid.
Let’s just juxtapose these two excerpts:
It gives us a measure of the owner’s quirky tastes and, more often than not, we find a singer, a musician or a documentary we’d never known before.
But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.
I’m just going to assume that Damon Darlin walks into other people’s houses at random, without filtering or vetting them first. I’m also going to assume that he goes through their medicine cabinets and ingests whatever drugs he finds there without filtering or vetting them. Because otherwise this makes NO SENSE.
Top 40 Radio, books read by random people on the subway - say what you will about the merits of these as engines of serendipity, but at least there’s a prima facie case to be made for them as a fundamentally different kind of content delivery than the way most folks experience the web. But browsing your friends’ bookshelves and sorting through their Twitter recommendations are prima facie the same thing. You’re encountering the shared culture of a small set of associates selected because they have other things in common. Again, this is true unless you’re just knocking on doors.
At least make a case for it. Say something about how our CDs reveal more about us than our Twitter or Blog recommendations, because they show what we like and HAVE liked rather than what we admit that we like right now. Say that email forwards are actually a much more ritualized and inherently conservative form than they’re cracked up to be.
The ultimate irony of this is that you could annotate this post and identify every single cliché in it, most of them already published in the NYT itself. So the other, alternate solution is that it’s a kind of weird performance-art piece, a limply parodic performance of the reject-the-web-in-favor-of-false-nostalgia-for-serendipity tropes that have been circling for years.
Unless it’s forthcoming, I’m going to assume that the guy breaks into people’s houses and huffs their pills before checking out their CD and magazine racks.
(*I know, I’m a weekend late on the stupefied outrage about this. But I’m also just offended as a writing teacher. If an eighteen-year-old submitted this to me, with this paucity of argument, it would be lucky to squeak by with a B.)