How can we keep discovery alive in a world increasingly in love with the algorithm?
By Eli Kuslansky and John Hubbell
We’ve settled into an era in which our digital choices feel infinite. The notion of an endless number of options available at the swipe of a finger — from data to quantifiable selves to new identities—has become an accepted cultural truth. Conversations about our mobile devices often focus on our concern about having too much information, too little time to manage it, and the feeling that our digital life may be dominating our existence.
Those of us working at the intersection of technology and information embrace the new and mobile. But as we do, it’s important to ponder how our concept of choice is being redefined by emerging technology. Limits remain—and in fact, the ways in which we encounter ideas have actually narrowed.
In Part 9 in the Creative Destruction series, we explore the notion of choice in the Digital Age. Sharing information is sometimes a beautiful, elegant, even breathtaking act. In this curated short essay and conversation, we contrast the ways of discovering ideas and ponder how digital tools have altered the process, how our choices are being constrained and guided, and what we can do— as curators, creators, and media designers—to ensure things don’t get out of hand. How we can keep serendipitous discovery alive in a world increasingly in love with the algorithm?
We’d like to make a case for preserving and promoting true randomness and the power of serendipity—essential qualities that feel threatened when websites know our past, what to show us as a result, and digest and interpret our every click. Chance is worth fighting for. In so many ways, it helped us get where we are. Recently, Eli Kuslansky, Partner and Chief Strategist at Unified Field, spoke with Dave Patten, Head of New Media at Science Museum London, about the power of serendipity in the Digital Age.
Eli Kuslansky: Society now has this vast knowledge base on the Internet, so people can pull information from it, but at the same time, is it also narrowing our analog searches. When you start working on a project for Science Museum London, where do you start generating ideas?
Dave Patten: We start with the messages we want to convey and the people we are trying to convey them to. We focus on the audience first, then look at how to specifically communicate the message. It might be through displaying an object or writing a piece of text or it might be by providing some kind of experience, which could be a digital experience. I visit as many museums and cultural institutions as I possibly can and see what they are doing, but I also look outside of that… at document services, open data services... and what artists do and how they push technology and content into interesting new directions.
Eli Kuslansky: And you do your research both online and off, yes?
Dave Patten: Yes. Most of my work is in exhibitions. Most museums seem to have gone down a fairly similar route with their online activity, but there are lots of people and organizations doing amazing work that has nothing to do with museums or cultural institutions.
Eli Kuslansky: Do you think that predictive algorithms used on the Internet are having a real impact on how people come across ideas they weren’t even looking for in the first place?
Dave Patten: I suspect they are, but I’m not sure that anybody is really doing any work to look at that. As I search, it is getting more and more personalized, and posts I Google are more and more about us trying to make the searches more directive. You find the information you were looking for but that means you’re probably not seeing the things that may have come up by accident. You have to find different ways to keep the level of serendipity in the system or at the very least be really aware of what is happening and find other ways for trolling more widely for information when that is appropriate.
Eli Kuslansky: Do you see examples of that showing up in people’s work or in museum exhibits or artwork?
Dave Patten: No…but I am not sure that you necessarily see that. I guess what you would see over time is an absence of originality that would probably begin to creep in, or more sameness.
Eli Kuslansky: Let’s talk about the digitization of artifacts.
Dave Patten: In some ways, digitized objects are no different from real objects. It is what you do with them that counts. If you put them digitized objects in a framework where the way you find them becomes really directive, this may reduce some of that serendipity. Digital objects should be available in multiple places in a myriad of different ways compared to the physical object, but you need to construct both ways around the object. I think we are very good at constructing directive paths.
Eli Kuslansky: Especially in science, how many discoveries were just accidents, like penicillin or the discovery of the atom bomb by Leo Szilard?
Dave Patten: One would hope, I guess, that we are not losing it, that we are just kind of changing it. You have to be mindful when something new starts to happen that you are open enough to accept it. We look at digital things, and unless they are very, very new… we are still developing the models. We are still building the technologies. Compare that to labels at museums. We have been writing labels for objects for hundreds of years and you could say that actually we are still not perfect at it. Some labels are good. Some labels are not particularly well written. So why do we think that digital activity after 20 years should be perfect? The medium itself is still evolving in huge pace.
Eli Kuslansky: When people do searches on the Internet, there is a tendency not to click past the first couple of pages. I imagine this dynamic happens in a museum context, too. Is that your experience?
Dave Patten: You want people to read the top layer and maybe one layer underneath that. Then everything underneath is for people who are more interested and want to dig deeper. It’s about what motivates the audience, what interests them, what excites them, what teases them, what makes them want to do the next thing.
Eli Kuslansky: I wonder if the 21st century museum is more about creating platforms than it is about creating learning experiences?
Dave Patten: I guess there is an element of platforms, but museums are always about learning experiences and I think platforms are part of learning experiences. We are probably beginning to see the museum voice not being the only voice that people listen to when they are in a museum.
Eli Kuslansky: Yes. If you are on your mobile, for example, you can look at the museums’ websites when you want to find more information or you can just Google it. Do you think the law of serendipity is real or is it a myth?
Dave Patten: I think it is too early to tell. In my gut, I think we are all losing some things…and we are just now navigating that transition. We need to be aware that we could be heading in a direction where we will lose a big chunk of that serendipity and that could potentially be a quite bad thing. We need to find ways of engineering that back into the experience. At the moment, it is hard to tell because actually how do you measure serendipity?
Eli Kuslansky: How do you introduce the wildcard searches? You know, the stuff that you didn’t normally think you would find or be looking for? What would that look like?
Dave Patten: Maybe when you do a Google search, to give you the top 10 results and yeah, a button that will give you 10 results from the top 10,000 results just randomly spread through the whole thing...
Eli Kuslansky: Right, but I would contend that some algorithm drove those “random” 10,000 results. I’m talking about the idea of complete serendipity and discovery, like when you’re walking down the street and come across something you weren’t even looking for.
Dave Patten: It kind of picks up things in your search terms and defines a new search and goes off to that. So maybe the solution is building in a way to branch off in interesting directions. If we don’t recognize this as potentially being a problem, then there is no need to find a solution. But I think we should be considering the whole experience and how it will tend to be when you lose that sense of serendipity.
Contributors’ note: Our Creative Destruction conversation is about the importance of preserving the essence of exploration in a world that seems increasingly designed to help us avoid it. What we might call “true randomness” must be preserved and encouraged—otherwise, we risk our cultures, their cherished totems, and even our sense-of-self becoming merely iterative clones of past ideas. It is a Renaissance, cross-disciplinary hope for the world to use digital tools to go places that we would not otherwise go. How can we enable exploration rather than inadvertently constrain it? What are good examples of true to life randomness? Let’s take the conversation across a few sectors and see what we find.
Eli Kuslansky is principal at Unified Field,, a leading interactive design company based in New York. John Hubbell is founder of Old Bridge Media, a nonfiction storytelling consultancy also based in New York.
Creative Destruction Series: Introduction
Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology
Creative Destruction Series Part 02: Designing for Plurals, the Evolving Audience
Creative Destruction Series Part 03: Relocating Humanity
Creative Destruction Series Part 04: A Curious Stepchild of Inbound Marketing
Creative Destruction Series Part 05: Automated Design
Creative Destruction Series Part 06: Embracing Serendipity in the Digital Age
Creative Destruction Series Part 07: Three Versions of "US"
Creative Destruction Series Part 08: 12 Strategic Predictions for 2017