Evgeny Morozov’s latest op-ed, The Death of the Cyberflâneur, reminds me of two separate articles that I’ve read recently: Ian Leslie’s In Search of Serendipity from Intelligent Life and the many many articles on or referencing Susan Cain’s latest book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
But if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company. […] Besides, isn’t it obvious that consuming great art alone is qualitatively different from consuming it socially? And why this fear of solitude in the first place? […] IT’S this idea that the individual experience is somehow inferior to the collective that underpins Facebook’s recent embrace of “frictionless sharing,” the idea that, from now on, we have to worry only about things we don’t want to share; everything else will be shared automatically. […] Sadly, frictionless sharing has the same drawback as “effortless poetry”: its final products are often intolerable. It’s one thing to find an interesting article and choose to share it with friends. It’s quite another to inundate your friends with everything that passes through your browser or your app, hoping that they will pick something interesting along the way. […] This is the very stance that is killing cyberflânerie: the whole point of the flâneur’s wanderings is that he does not know what he cares about. —Morozov
When the internet was new, its early enthusiasts hoped it would emulate the greatest serendipity machine ever invented: the city. The modern metropolis, as it arose in the 19th century, was also an attempt to organise an exponential increase, this one in population. Artists and writers saw it as a giant playground of discovery, teeming with surprise encounters. The flâneur was born: one who wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map. […] We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles. […] Editors with an eye for such things, what Zuckerman calls “curators”, are being superseded by “friends”—people like you, who probably already share your interests and world view—delivered by Facebook. Twitter is better at leading us to the interests of people beyond our social circle, but our tendency to associate with others who think in similar ways—what sociologists call our “value homophily”—means most of us end up with a feed that feels like an extended dinner party. […] But there is a reason why Amazon is successful and bookshops are closing: in a world of infinite choice, efficiency is hard to resist. … Serendipity, on the other hand, is, as Zuckerman says, “necessarily inefficient”. It is a fragile quality, vulnerable to our desire for convenience and speed. It also requires a kind of planned vagueness. Digital systems don’t do vagueness very well, and our patience with it seems to be fading. … But when everyone can get the same information in more or less the same way, it becomes harder to be original; innovation thrives on the serendipitous collision of ideas. —Leslie
To be continued.