The ‘Future of Serendipity’ in a Changing World

On August 9, we held our first official Serendipity Society event, in conjunction with the World Humanities Conference (WHC) in Liège, Belgium. The ‘Serendipity Society Symposium’ consisted of three presentations by Society members Sylvie Catellin, Samantha Copeland, and Selene Arfini. In keeping with the theme of the WHC, each of the speakers addressed the role of serendipity research in understanding the role of the humanities today and in the future, as we engage the challenges and responsibilities scholars share for this world in transition.

Sylvie, from University of Versailles Saint-Quentin – University Paris-Saclay, Cultural and International Studies Institute, began the Symposium with a review of the history of serendipity as a concept. She spoke of how the term allowed scientists and researchers to speak of the importance of intuition and creative freedom in their work, evolving into the concept in use today. She made a case for our understanding of serendipity in science as a reminder of the human element in scientific research. As a concept rooted in literature, it presents a humanities concept essential to our understanding of how we ought to (and can) go forward as the paradigms of science and technology continue to dominate in society.

Following this insightful introduction, Samantha, from the Centre for Applied Philosophy of Science at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (CAPS-NMBU), spoke of the distinction between innovation and mere novelty. She made the point that serendipity involves a valuable outcome, not just noticing something unusual by chance. Raising the question of how we can, in the moment of surprise, determine whether something is worth following up or not, Samantha provided a formula for understanding serendipitous discovery as something that happens both to the individual and at the level of the community. It is through a co-operative development of shared goals that we can go from making unexpected observations to making discoveries that bring real progress.

Selene, from the Department of Philosophy, Education and Economical-Quantitative Sciences at the University of Chieti and Pescara, rounded off the Symposium with an analysis of the risks that come alongside the benefits of social media. While many have touted the importance of accidental discovery via browsing, others have warned of the limitations of the ‘bubble’ that results when algorithms filter out potentially interesting, but unexpected, links and news. Selene took on this complex site of discovery and looked closely at how social media can lead to either serendipitous discovery or the proliferation of misinformation. Thus, in this contemporary context, ignorance that begins as a lack of information can have a positive result–new knowledge–or a negative result–mistaken beliefs and, as a result, more ignorance.

In sum, the three talks brought together several issues raised by serendipity into which research in the humanities can provide insight. Understanding how the concept evolved clarifies the humanistic element of unexpected discovery–in an age when the idea that computers may be more efficient at discovery than humans is increasingly popular, it is important to remember that human insight has long been thought an essential part of discovery. Novelty is not the end of our research, either: we need to keep in mind that it is progress we are looking for when policies emphasise ‘innovation’ as their primary goal. Progress, too, is a human ideal, and defined by human-made goals. Finally, humans themselves are the users of new and innovative technology, and a humanistic approach to our own ignorance helps guide us to ensure that the aims of that technology are not eclipsed by negative outcomes that arise alongside them.

Looking forward to our next Society event, taking place at the annual ASIS&T conference, in Washington DC, this October/November!

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Three sisters in serendipity, making plans over fondue.
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Historic, downtown Liège, the site of the conference.

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