So we created this machine - this Heath Robinson device (as Prof John Naughton described it in The Observer on Sunday) - but how does it do what it does? What’s inside the black box?
The Serendipity Engine was an exercise in trying to understand two things: 1) what is serendipity, and 2) how it can be “produced" by a digital technology. The first version of the engine (created with Kat Jungnickel) tackled the first question, and the second (created with Ben Hammersley) the second.
Here’s the answer to how the first fit into the second:
Scales, weightings and their sources
Your Serendipitousness is based on the answers to questions that fit into seven different scales. Some of the questions are considered more “important” for predicting attributions of serendipity (the likelihood you’ll have the insight to make the connections and that you’ll consider the connections valuable), and some of the scales are considered more “important”.
These scales are based on psychological tests. As such - and just like a computer - they are unable to capture everything about the thing they’re trying to measure. They can’t take into account all of the various things that should also be taken into consideration.
If you are high in social support, you’re probably in a tight-knit group of friends and family whom you rely on. So the decisions you make that seem out of character will likely to be supported by your friends and family. Because of your demographic make-up, doors may open for you more easily than for people with a lower score. But you may not have as much access to new information as someone with a lower social support scale. On the other hand, if you’re low in social support, you are probably on the periphery of lots of different networks, and so you’ll have lots more information at your fingertips and you’ll be more innovative because you’ll have less to lose if you decide to do something out of character.
Creativity (x 2 weighting)
How creative will you be in making connections between things that seem to have no apparent connections? If you’re more creative, you’re more likely to see affiliations between things, and it’s more likely that they’ll be new and unexpected. If you’re low in creativity, you will still see connections, but they’re probably more literal.
If you’re body is too busy trying to keep itself in optimal condition, it won’t have the energy or resources to pay attention to things or to make connections.
HeadRAM (x 2 weighting)
This scale measures how much you can keep in your head at one time. If you can keep a lot in there, you will be able to access it more easily, and therefore will be able to make lots of connections.
Attention (x 2 weighting)
How much attention can you give to your surroundings, and are you easily distracted? If you don’t see or can’t keep your eye on the little random confluences that could lead to a serendipitous discovery, you’ll miss ‘em.
Access to Knowledge
If you have a high score in this scale, you have a very wide range of knowledge at your fingertips. It may not be your own knowledge: are the areas of your parents’ expertise very different from your own? You’ll still have access to that, even if it’s just half-remembered titbits from your childhood. With high access to knowledge, you’ll be able to see more connections between things, and have a diversity of information to help realise their value.
Grit is a measure of your tenacity - to solve problems, to see something through to the end. This can be particularly useful in predicting whether you think something is serendipitous or not if you’re low in Social Support and the thing you want to do is outside your comfort zone: if you’re high in grit, you’ll do it anyways.
Tomorrow, I’ll explain how this is used to deliver your personalised “serendipity recipe".
* Thanks to Nominet Trust and Google for their support in this research.
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