What did you learn today? It's a question plenty of kids get asked when they come home from school - but maybe one we don't ask ourselves so often as grown-ups...
Well, in the past twenty four hours I learned at least two things. One is that the word 'serendipity' comes from an old name for Sri Lanka - Serendip. For a word of such a vintage, its origins can be dated with unusual precision, to the 28th of January, 1754. It was coined by Horace Walpole in a letter, referring to a fairy tale called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'. These princes 'were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'. Hence, serendipity.
My second learning of the day was that serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) 'Zemblanity' is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:
So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.
All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina - which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design" is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when "learning outcomes" are specified in advance.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, Will Davies is concerned that "Web 2.0" threatens to eliminate serendipity from whole areas of our lives, in the pursuit of more efficient ways of finding music we'll like or people to whom we're indirectly connected:
Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us.
But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering. ...when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.
That reminded me of an experiment by Matt Jones (who's on our advisory board for the School of Everything). A few years ago, he asked the readers of his blog to help him make contact with Brian Eno - a quest in which he succeeded within two days. Afterwards, he reflected (in a less apocalyptic tone than Will) on the unsatisfactoriness of social networking tools which leave no room for serendipity:
...the goal of all the 'Sters is to collapse our social web to a surveyable size, bringing our friends and connections close enough to see beyond them to new people. A little like glancing over the shoulder of someone you’re talking to at a party in order to see who’s coming through the door.
The picturesque and playful exploring of our social connections is sacrificed. The mathematics of coincidence are intruding on the delusions we enjoyed every time we exclaimed to a new acquaintance the reassuring cliche “what a small world!”.
Where’s the business model in social networks? The same as email and other generators of information overload: the new luxury of meaning. I will pay to sustain the space, the silence and the signal. Give me privacy and anonymity, but also possibility. Extend my connections, but don’t collapse them.
I share Will's concern about the ways in which the tools we use shape us - deform us, even. There is too much hype about Web 2.0 and that means not only that its strengths are over-rated, but that its more troubling aspects are overlooked. Yet compared to the compulsory zemblanity of the education system, my meanderings across the internet continue to be spiced with serendipity...