From Forbes blogs:
As regular readers will know there’s little in the standard worldview of the Guardian that interests me (and as a disclosure, the newspaper only ever hires me to write for it when it is going to be fun popping some ideological bubbles among its readers) but there’s a piece there today that neatly captures something that does indeed worry me. Or if you prefer, describes why I entirely hate shopping for books on Amazon.
Bronwen Clune is talking about the way in which various modern technologies determine what we already like: but this then reduces our exposure to things we don’t know about and thus reduces the role of serendipity in exposing us to new things that we might like:
Tracking, data mining and collaborative filtering are now the way things are done. There is little room left for the art of finding something good by accident, or stumbling upon something useful while not searching for it. We shouldn’t underplay this, as luck and serendipity have long played a role in science when it’s come to discoveries; penicillin, radioactivity and gravity to name a few. What role could technology play in reducing these accidents from our lives? If we’re only ever exposed to what has been determined to appeal to us, we reduce the chances of these accidental discoveries. This can be from the personal to things of larger consequence. Put simply, the more our data is used to determine our needs and desires, the less chance there is for serendipity.
. . . .
Which brings me to Amazon. I do indeed like it if I know what it is that I want to buy. Various bits and pieces of electronics have been purchased over the years. But I find it an intensely irritating way to buy a book. Cheap, yes, convenient, most assuredly, but intensely irritating. For I’m almost never going out to buy a book that I know that I want to read. I am, rather, browsing to try and find one that I do want to read. And that is something fueled almost entirely by serendipity and in my case it’s what makes second hand bookshops near to nirvana. Being able to flip through the first couple of pages of twenty to forty books, spotting the pile of mouldering 50s sci-fi pulps, shying from the radioactive evil of the chick lit shelves, it is this browsing that has done more to introduce me to new and interesting authors and or genres than anything else. And try as I might I cannot gain that same experience from Amazon, the recommendation engine (at least the level of my knowledge about the actual use of computers) doesn’t manage to replicate that experience.
No doubt this is all terribly luddite of me and I’m sure the cool kids have managed to work it all out.
Link to the rest at Forbes blogs
PG says there is no doubt that some people enjoy wandering around bookstores or other retail establishments as a recreational pursuit, a way of wiling away an hour or two. PG has certainly done this in the past and will undoubtedly find an opportunity to do so in the future.
However, as the author suggests, PG thinks this is a generational thing (and also observes that the publishing business seems to attract Luddites in droves). Does anyone bemoan the lack of a physical phone or tablet app store and complain there’s no serendipity in app discovery? If you come of age with Amazon, a bookstore is likely to seem a bit archaic and not all that interesting.
In an Amazon world, particularly with free Prime shipping, the idea of a shopping trip begins to feel inefficient. If you think of something you need, just pull up Amazon and order it, then get on with more important things in your life. PG routinely orders all sorts of non-book things from Amazon that he formerly bought at various retail stores.
If you hear about an interesting book (or, more likely, read about one online), why worry about making a mental note to look for it out the next time you visit a bookstore? Just download the sample and check it out at your next break. Watching TV and see someone talking about an interesting book? Pick up your tablet and download a sample or buy the book if it really sounds great.
Browsing for books is something PG sort of does all the time, not just when he’s visiting a bookstore. For him, serendipity happens constantly and almost everywhere.
The Borders bankruptcy closed the nearest physical bookstore for PG, so it takes a little longer to drive to Barnes & Noble. When he goes there every few months, it’s just not that intriguing. And besides, it’s only a place to buy physical books and PG does very little of that any more.