Today I was at Readercon in Burlington, MA (conveniently located only ¼ mile from where I work) and attended an interesting session regarding the concept of serendipity playing a role in our book selections.
A part of the discussion surrounded the difference between physical books and ebooks and digressed into those who loved what things like the binding told them and those who were only interested in the words. The usual conversation about the touch and feel of the book ensued. I personally prefer a physical book, but I don’t feel strongly enough about the matter to present one option over the other. The one thing I do like about ebooks is that, as an author, I find it much easier to get someone to buy a $1.99 ebook than a $8-12 paperback.
So with that said let us move on from the digital print vs ink print discussion to how you find the book itself.
Before there were many other options, it was likely that you encountered new books by browsing the shelves of your local bookstore or library. Serendipitously you would stumble upon some book you had no idea existed by some thing about it which caught your attention. If you are a habitual reader who prowls bookstores and libraries you have most certainly had this happen to you.
I’m also certain that we’ve all discovered some of our now favorite authors via this method. I, for example, started my SFF adventures by seeing a face-out copy of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight in my jr high-school library.
So now that we don’t do that, can we find serendipity on the Internet? Is it possible for us to stumble upon that next great author by chance?
This was the other question which the panelists at the Readercon session debated. Something that bothered me about their take on things such as Amazon’s recommendation engine is that (though they should know better) they made two assumptions which I believe are flawed.
1) That businesses selling books used to be altruistic and all about ponies and rainbows. Amazon, of course, is cold and evil and given a choice would grind up unicorn horns to sprinkle over their servers to make them run better.
2) That the Internet is written by some machine and perfectly carries out the will of its masters.
Regarding the first, I hope everyone will take off their rose-colored glasses and keep in mind that at the end of the day, businesses are in business to make money. Altruistic businesses cannot often support an entire industry.
For my second point, you’ll notice that I used the word ‘written’. As both a writer of software as well as a writer of literature I feel that the lowly coder is maligned. To write software in the modern age you must know many software languages, and you must use them at the same time in many cases. Writing software is like writing a book in Sanskrit, French and Swahili—and do it on three or four mediums while you’re at it.
That is to say, it’s full of mistakes.
Even more than that, I want to emphasis that it’s written by people. These people write tens of thousands of ‘if/else’ statements and conditions that cause a website to do one thing or another. And it’s all based on what that person thinks is a logical thing to do at that time.
Hopefully you’re starting to see what I know: there is a certain amount of randomness to the setup.
And don’t forget that software developers are lazy. If they can work out a way that something will ‘probably’ work as intended most of the time and do it in ten minutes, vs something that will absolutely work correctly, but take days to code… guess which way they go.
And then there’s the users. The first thing anyone who writes software learns is that your users never interact with your software the way you intended them to. Often it’s amazing—they make the code you wrote do something you never thought it would. Other times you bang your head into some hard solid object and say “OF COURSE YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE CLICKED THAT! IT SAID DON’T CLICK ME!”
Either way (and this shouldn’t surprise you since you use computers all the time) this technology stuff doesn’t work perfectly all the time. And because it’s all written by humans there is an element of chaos to it. And that means that there’s some serendipity lurking out there somewhere on the Internet.
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