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In defence of serendipity: the Silicon Emperor is wearing no clothes

How truly innovative are companies like Uber and Airbnb, super-monopolies that capture entire markets by locking vendors and customers into their platforms? Dan Peled/AAP

In defence of serendipity: the Silicon Emperor is wearing no clothes

Serendipity is the process of finding something useful, valuable or just generally “good” without actually looking for it. Throughout the history of invention and discovery serendipity has functioned as a sort of Freudian unconscious, leading – or, perhaps better, tricking – the curious human mind onto unexpected novelty.

And yet, only recently have we started to become truly aware of the crucial role of serendipity in our attempts to creatively grasp toward the future.

Over the last few years, it has become an important – if not overused – reference for the creative industries and for our innovation-obsessed economy in general. This is remarkable as “serendipity” was conceived in mid-18th-century literary circles. Horace Walpole coined the term in 1754.

Walpole had come across the “silly fairy tale” Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo, an Italian translation of the Persian parable of the three princes of Serendip. During their travels, Walpole wrote, they “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”.

Walpole’s definition of serendipity spread through the world of literates and bibliophiles. Scientists were always able to relate to the term. Louis Pasteur’s adage about chance favouring only prepared minds reflects serendipity’s significance for scientific discoveries and inventions.

Accident and sagacity

Today, serendipity is emerging as an important reference for those whose job it is to make our economies more innovative, our industries and cities more creative, and our future, well, better.

Yet unsurprisingly, in this world of TED, PechaKucha and awesome one-liners, serendipity is fast becoming a fad.

This is unfortunate as the notion offers more than meets the Google-glassed eye. Walpole defined the term as a convergence of accident and sagacity.

And this allows us to understand serendipity as a response to an age-old conundrum that the philosopher Plato baptised Meno’s paradox: the search for new knowledge is a sheer impossibility as one either knows what to look for, in which case the object of the search is not new, or one doesn’t know what to look for, which makes the search impossible.

Serendipity offers a possible solution by suggesting that the new always enters the world through the back door of the accident. For true novelty to emerge, anomalies, detours or confusions are required to occur.

However, it is equally important to notice these accidents and recognise their potential. This is where sagacity comes in. It represents the ability to turn the virtuality of the accident into the actuality of something new entering the world.

The capitalist dilemma

Unfortunately, our infrastructures of innovation are neither susceptible to accidents of the disruptively generative kind nor particularly hospitable to the kind of sagacity that would recognise disruptive potential – in the non-Californian sense of the term.

This may sound counterintuitive, given the omnipresent chatter about disruption and digital innovation, but look around: where are the mind-blowing innovations promised by the prophets of Silicon Valley and their local subsidiaries?

One of the great contemporary icons of product innovation is basically a digitally pimped wristwatch. Blake Patterson/flickr, CC BY

The new iPhone? Thank you for getting rid of the headphone jack. Flying cars? Nowhere to be seen. And what happened to supersonic air travel – ’50s technology that seems too advanced for the digital age?

If we look more closely at what passes as the great contemporary icons of product innovation, we might realise that these are a digitally pimped wristwatch and a car that takes away the experience of driving (remember: this is the experience economy).

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen refers to this lack of real innovation as “the capitalist’s dilemma”: the economy is losing creative momentum thanks to its entrenchment in the matrices of finance. The risk-averse logic of finance, he argues, prevents companies from investing in exciting new ideas that could lead to new products and services.

Christensen’s argument links the innovative impotence of the economy to businesses’ increasing inability to serve society. Thanks to its thorough financialisation, the economic game has become radically hermetic.

The result is not just soaring social inequality, as bemoaned by Thomas Piketty. It also cuts off economic rationality from the diversity of non-economic inputs needed to move the economy forward.

The naked silicon emperor

It would be wrong to believe that Silicon Valley is an exception to such economically dysfunctional navel-gazing. When its venture capitalists are not busy funding the latest app for dog shit collection, they tend to focus on the so-called sharing economy. They are looking to invest in the “next Uber for X”.

The question is: how innovative are these platform business models in fact? They are certainly disruptive, but not exactly in the way that brilliantly innovative products or services are.

Look at the platform poster boys: Airbnb is disrupting the sustainability of urban living by driving up rents and real estate prices, while Uber and its offshoots happily introduce feudalist work conditions for their hyper-exploited pseudo-entrepreneurs.

And these companies can do these things because they can rely on massive funding that effectively takes them out of any market competition.

The goal of these financially overfed business-bullies is to create super-monopolies that capture entire markets to lock vendors and customers into their platforms – pseudo-markets that function according to their supreme (often algorithmic) rule.

These business models not only have disastrous effects on their societal “environment” but are also – because they absorb entire markets into the hermetic space of self-referential platforms – great inhibitors of serendipity and, indeed, innovation.

If this tendency towards platform capitalism goes unchecked, we will soon face a situation similar to that at the end of the Eastern Bloc. While the global party press (TED, Wired, O’Reilly Media) runs hot churning out the credo of the innovation economy, the hiatus between the image of the world according to the digital innovation gospel and the real economic (and social) stasis grows to comical proportions.

It is high time we called out the Silicon Emperor for being naked and did so in the name of innovation – that is, in defence of serendipity.


The author is the keynote speaker at the June 15 Smart City-Creative City symposium hosted by Monash University’s Culture Media Economy (CME) research unit in Melbourne.

The Australian launch of the author’s book, In Defence of Serendipity: For a Radical Politics of Innovation (Repeater Books, London 2016), will be hosted on Wednesday, June 14, at 4pm by CME. Register for the free public lecture and launch here.

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