September 10, 2013

Aleks Krotoski on Combinatorial Creativity

On a recent BBC Radio 4 show, 'Last Bus to Serendip' Aleks Krotoski (@aleksk) discussed serendipity (her blog runs some stuff on it here and here as well). Serendipity being that delightful learning moment or moment of discovery, encounter or chance meeting that can change the course of your life. That happy accident we've nearly all had. We're all like lightning conductors to everyone else's lightning. The term was coined by Horace Walpole, an 18th Century man of letters who created the word after the Three Princes of Serendip who made great discoveries whether through chance or sagacity.


Aleks Krotoski explored serendipity its role and effect in building networked knowledge and fuelling combinatorial creativity. She asked the poet Richard Price, "Do you think about serendipity during the creative process and when writing poetry?" He responded by explaining the two types of serendipity. The first kind of serendipity:
"Very much so. There are two kinds of serendipity for poets. One is serendipity of influence. A good example is, I'm in a second hand book shop in Brighton. I come across the biography of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and I'm very taken by his WW1 poetry. 15 years later, I'm working on my last book 'Small World' which is just about parenthood. There is no connection there. Yet Apollinaire's style - that became really careful for 'Small World'."   
Aleks interjected: "The reason why people talk about libraries as sources of serendipity is that 2 books next to one another could have completely different topics but could bump well against one another. But you're talking about war and parenthood - some people may not see the connection. To be able to see that connection is quite a skill."
"Maybe but it's also to do with the industrial process of reading tonnes and tonnes of things."
Richard Price explained the second kind of serendipity:
"The other type is serendipity of inspiration. Mermaids are a good example for me. My daughter is disabled and I was trying to capture how as she reaches teenagehood she is both distant but very much loved by me. I wanted one tiny lyric to crack this. I tried various different ways then I slept on it. I woke up and was surrounded by little mermaid ideas and of course that's her world. And then this idea of a mermaid in a wheelchair. And this is an absolutely key lyric in the book. 
That paradox was waiting for me. It was waiting for me in the commercial stuff around the house."

Aleks then spoke with James Burke, the science historian known for making magical connections between seemingly unconnected events through time and space. He's a chronicler of serendipity throughout the ages. Aleks asked: "How do you go about creating connections?" James Burke responded:
"I start with something and I read in widening circles around them. The purpose of the reading is to find the most unexpected exit point from the particular person or subject. For example: So you get a chain of surprises, so you start with Mozart who stole The Marriage of Figaro from a French guy called Beaumarchais who is invited by the King to become the guy who laundered money across to the United States so they could win the war against us [Great Britain]. 
So he was a big pal of Thomas Jefferson who tried to get capital punishment off the book influenced by an Italian called Beccaria who wrote a book on penology and he got this idea from a guy called Spurzheim who came up with phrenology which is reading the head bumps. And this idea went over very big with social reformers like Follen who was so excited by it that he stabbed somebody and was called before a judge called Hoffmann. Who in his spare time wrote creepy stories about the dead coming out of the grave. And one of these stories or two was by stolen by Edgar Allan Poe who in turn was stolen by Rachmaninoff who wrote lots of lovely stuff and one day at a party on Long Island was so impressed by a fellow Russian immigrant that he gave him $5,000 which was lots of money back then. Giving Igor Sikorsky enough money to develop the helicopter (read more on that story here). So Mozart developed the helicopter in 7 jumps."
James Burke continued:
"But the point being not that it's definitive but that there are these crazy connections and that's the way to think about the world. So that when you're learning stuff, as well as learning it you are learning how it is relevant to your life."
Stepping aside for a moment, Kevin Spacy made the timeless observation in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. He said:
"We are the way we are because the people have been hugely influenced by the greats that came before." 
Back to the discussion. Aleks then said that there is a clear link between the scientific method and serendipity and then asked: "Why is that?" James Burke responded:
"Go back to Pasteur who said, "chance faours the prepared mind." And most scientists when the ystumbled across something unexpected it's the experience and scientific work they have which I think gives them a clue. I think that serendipity is much deeper than the modern definition that it's about happy accidents."
James Burke then pondered where this instinct for spotting and revelling in the serendipity moment comes from. He said:
"I wonder if it is left over from an ancient survival characteristic. Remember Rumsfeld said, "There are things we know and there are things we know we don't know and there are things we don't know we don't know. It seems to me, as long as we've been alive on the planet you really have to be able to handle the "unknown unknowns". When there is a shape there in the bushes and you're not quite sure what it is. You identify it as being an anomaly and you get the hell out. 
So I wonder whether or not this ability to recognise that I don't know what that is but that it matters is really the origin of what we know as serendipity... We are interested in the outliers and anomalies. Why is the anomaly there and where is it going to take me? That's serendipity. Your fundamental survival instinct to note the value of anomalies."
Aleks summed things up by laying out how she should approach and encourage those moments of serendipity. She said:
"As Richard Price said, I need to read far and wide. Then as the Iranian scholar Narguess Fazad said, I need to be open to the experience. And then as James Burke explained, I need to be able to make the connections." 

Further Reading:

Aleks Krotoski has been thinking about online serendipity for some time, and here are a few of the things she has written or said on the subject:

The Last Bus to Serendip (BBC Radio 4, 5 September 2013) (audio)

Chance (The Digital Human, BBC Radio 4, 11 June 2012) (audio)

Serendipity and the Internet (The Culture Show, BBC2, February 2012) (video)

Untangling the Web: Serendipity (The Observer, August 2011)

Supercharge your serendipity (Internet Advertising Bureau’s ENGAGE2010, October 2010, London, England) (video)

What is media for? Networking (LSE POLIS, October 2010, London, England)

The Cult of Me: a primer for broadcasters (NPOX10 Festival, September 2010 in Hilversum, Holland)

Missing out on meatspace: Ubiquitous computing and the human experience of ‘being online’ (Horizon Doctoral Training Centre’s Summer School, July 2010 University of Nottingham, England)

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