Internet Serendipity

November 20, 2013 by  

Internet Serendipity, Chris Haufe is tired of Amazon’s recommendations.”I’d say about 95% of the time Amazon suggests a book to me, it’s one I already have,” he says.This is not due to a lack of interest on the part of Haufe, a professor at Case Western University who specializes in the history and philosophy of science. He’d still like some interesting, perhaps off-the-wall suggestions.

But Amazon’s vaunted algorithm, embodied in the recommendations page of “Your” and the “customers who bought this item also bought” line on each product page, doesn’t cast a net wide enough for Haufe’s consideration.

In that, he sees a bigger concern. Our reliance on computer algorithms, he observes, may be narrowing our choices. They’re taking serendipity — the random, happy accidents of life — out of the mix.

“We’re losing something vital to the production of knowledge,” he says.

It’s kind of surprising, actually. The Internet is a gigantic ball of randomness, an entire universe of human understanding — whether it’s Wikipedia entries, scholarly articles, YouTube videos, social media memes or everything in between. When we talk about “surfing the Internet,” we’re often describing a session of jumping from site to site and link to link with little connection besides our own curiosity. Jorge Luis Borges would be thrilled.

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