In Praise of Serendipity

All you really need to know about serendipity is that it's responsible for penicillin.

In fact—or in some mythologized version of fact—serendipity is also responsible for dynamite, nylon and Post-it notes. It's why Ilsa Laszlo ended up in Rick's Café Americain. And why a buoyant Archimedes went streaking — crying "Eureka!" — through the streets of ancient Greece.

Without serendipity, we wouldn't have X-rays, maple syrup, arc-welding or sunscreen. We'd be without zippers, Velcro, Coke and NutraSweet (and thus, by extension, Diet Coke). Serendipity is responsible for the Universal Law of Gravitation. For Lennon and McCartney. For a smallpox vaccine, microwaves, batteries, potato chips and a little blue pill for baby boomers.
Bedouin shepherds went looking for a lost goat and found the Dead Sea Scrolls. That's serendipity. Accidental wisdom. Fortuitous discovery. Stumbled-upon innovation. It's not just a pretty word; serendipity is also an important species of progress.

So why are we driving it to extinction?

That's right. We are clear-cutting serendipity from existence, paving over it with our technology, gadgets, software, even our mind-set.

Of course, we use more pleasant euphemisms than that. Caller ID is a feature. TiVo, cable TV and satellite radio are personalized and on demand. GPS is one kind of navigation tool, Google another. CRM software delivers tailored marketing. Real estate websites let you automate preferences and hone your search so that you never have to look at any houses that don't meet preselected criteria. Scientists, engineers, consultants, even kids thrive in this era of specialization. It's all about efficiencies.

Collectively, we call this progress, or innovation that upgrades our lives. But really, it's the systematic removal of chance from our lives, which feels like a good thing because we tend to regard chance merely as the possibility of bad stuff happening. That's only half of it. The other, frankly more intriguing, half of it is that chance is also the possibility of good stuff happening.

So, yes, you can eliminate unsought music from your day, but that also scotches any unexpected inspiration. Maybe you can block telemarketers, but then maybe you've also screened out the luckiest phone call of your life. You'll never get lost driving anymore, but also you'll never happen upon that out-of-the-way restaurant where you meet your future spouse. If S. Jocelyn Bell, a grad student in astronomy studying quasars, had stayed inside the box, she would have ignored the "scruff" on her data, which turned out to win a Nobel Prize. The scruff was pulsars.

For reasons undiscovered, though, the human brain seems hardwired to dwell on the bathwater and connive at the baby. We presuppose that the unknown is undesirable and that things out of our control tend not to be in our best interest. Sometimes — not always — this is true. Serendipity may be both elegant and significant, but it's also not terribly efficient. For every Beatles, there are thousands of terrible, failed garage bands.

So in this age of hyperefficiency, something as random as serendipity simply must be eliminated.

In its place, we're erecting a preplanned sprawl of safety and predictability. We yield fewer rewards this way, sure, but we also risk much less too, and doesn't that feel good. Safe. We trade in the possibility of a penicillin for market research that indicates consumers will buy another allergy medicine targeted at untapped subdemographics of consumers. We give up a Casablanca in favor of sequels, which prescreenings ensure will be popular (and profitable) with males 15 to 24, so long as at least 13 things blow up in really cool ways and Kirsten Dunst stars in it. Bedouins put RFID tags on their goats; they don't get lost anymore.

In short, we're building the infrastructure for a bland, planned, sadly uninspired world, where progress is incremental and risk is dodged. If serendipity dies, innovation will be synonymous with avoiding mistakes. It will be tiny steps for men and no giant leaps for mankind. We will be perfectly safe from catastrophe, and also sublimity.

Unless, somehow, we reverse ourselves. Turn off the BlackBerry for a while. Wander — literally or in our minds — with no particular destination. Embrace a little inefficiency and the possibility of greatness that comes with it. Let apples fall on our heads.

We can still save serendipity, if we just loosen our grip some. Shit happens. Rejoice.