From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 30, 2008*: Now what are the odds on that happening?

One day at the very beginning of this month was an extremely productive day connections-wise. During that day I reestablished contact with two people whom I hadn't seen in years. In one case I received a forwarded message from a friend (sent to what's probably a rather large list of recipients) informing whoever was interested that someone was giving away part of his book collection. Curious, I clicked on the attached link and discovered that I knew the person in question, but four or five years earlier, when his email address had changed, had lost contact with him. In the other case, someone with whom I went to junior high school had run a Google search on someone he remembered from that school, and found a page of mine in which I'd mentioned that person. Since my email address was on the one page that was linked to the page he'd found, he wrote to me, not realizing, as he later confessed to me, that I had written those pages. He also hadn't realized that my email address placed me in Israel - a particularly interesting point since he too, somewhere along the line, had moved here and was writing me from Israel as well. That same day I received another piece of email, not sent to me personally, but instead to an impersonal entity that I'm responsible for in an "official" capacity, and realized that the person who sent the mail was someone I knew well, but that didn't know that he was actually reaching me.

In the first instance, I was quickly able to find the email address of the person who wanted to give away his books, and send him a short letter, in that way reestablishing contact - though of course the fact that we now have each other's addresses doesn't mean that we'll actually use them. In the second, we exchanged a flurry of letters, promised to meet, and ... sort of left things at that. And as to the inadvertent letter to me, I promised to try and be helpful in the request that I'd received. Continued contact or not, however, three emails of this sort in one day certainly seemed to make this a busy day for unexpected surprises, causing me to wonder whether, beyond the vagaries of chance, and the hunch that when it comes to email six degrees of separation are many too many, something can be learned from all this. Perhaps we've become so overly connected that it's hard to avoid bumping into people we know. Perhaps links to information that we suddenly encounter shouldn't cause us to light up with excitement and exclaim "oh, wow!", but instead to smack our foreheads and say "but of course! I should have expected that".

In the past a day such as this would cause me to marvel at the wonders of serendipity - to scratch my head and exclaim that the internet offers a platform that converts chance into a tangible reality. Occurrences of this sort, however, seem to have become so commonplace that it's perhaps a mistake to relate to them as unexpected. Quite the opposite may well be the case: it's perhaps more logical to think that something is wrong when we don't encounter connections of this sort. What we once regarded as special, as outside of our expectations, has today become a central, and perhaps even banal, component of online life - Standard Operating Procedure for the super-connected.

Alan Levine tells a story about his visit to Australia in 2007, an occurrence which, at first glance, seems totally outside the odds, the sort of thing that shouldn't really happen. Levine, who lives in Arizona, often photographs flowers and posts these photos to his flickr account, tagging those whose names he doesn't know as "unknown" or "unidentified". He reports that invariably someone will view these photos and leave a comment with the proper name of the flower. At one of his lectures while in Australia he mentioned this, using as an example one particular flower, only to discover that the person who had commented on that flower was in the audience of that presentation. This is certainly an "oh, wow!" sort of moment, and it's hard at first not to agree with Levine that this is "the most amazing example of web serendipity". But the more I reflect on this story, the more I find myself wondering whether it's truly as serendipitous as he makes it out to be. And even it if is, maybe rather than serendipity, what it really show us is simply how much smaller our inter-connected world has become.

As our web experience becomes one of greater and greater connected-ness, we push any real possibility of chance into a rarely visited corner. Stumbling upon something is, after all, possible, only when we're not aware that that "something" is right there in front of us. Just as we can't purposefully tickle ourselves, we can't stumble upon something that we know is there. If we see it in front of us, we can meet it, or avoid it, but we can hardly be surprised by it. In a fully connected world, there's no room for serendipity, because there's no room for the unexpected, and thus nothing that can truly be stumbled upon.

We can credit Vannevar Bush, and his envisioning of the memex, with starting us down the road toward bringing everything together. He emphasized the importance of the associative process. About the memex he wrote:

It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.
But sixty years ago it was perhaps impossible to envision how quickly we might be inundated with information. Following Bush, Ted Nelson understood that more than simply bringing things together, digital technologies can give expression to a reality of interconnected-ness, a reality the existence of which we might have sensed before those technologies made the realization of that interconnected-ness truly feasible. Nelson called this intertwingularity:
EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no "subjects" at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly.
In The Hyperlinked Metaphysics of the Web, an essay from 2000 (the posted version is from 2006), David Weinberger hints that this intertwingularity carries distinct spiritual aspects. Weinberger writes about the feeling that, for all that's good and magnificent in life, we sense that there's still something more:
The something more is what I will call the "spiritual." We experience it as a longing, a yearning, an horizon of the world that is.

This something more is the basic movement of spirituality. It is the basic movement of optimism called by its proper name: Hope. It is the basic movement of the metaphysics of the Web.
For years I've subscribed to this view of the web. I've embraced the hint of transcendence that the web offers. But perhaps our inter-relatedness can reach a point of overload. It seems to me that today the joys of serendipity are being pushed aside because we're reaching a point at which, by being so fully connected, we're no longer able to sense the particularities, the fine details, that truly make things interesting. Critiquing our pre-web perceptions, Weinberger writes:
Our culture's metaphysics is based around dividing the world into discrete objects.
Contrasting this approach to one that's web-based he adds:
The most important fact about the Web considered as a space is that it has no outdoors.
But when the entirety is indivisible we're unable to discern discrete objects; we're unable to establish boundaries. Without boundaries everything becomes one great big "here", and it's impossible to cross from "here" to "there". I need discrete objects, and I need an outdoors, something outside of myself, outside of my present awareness, in order to anchor my wandering, in order to be able to recognize what's different, perhaps simply in order to make room for something different, in order to increase the odds on chance.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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