In Defense of Serendipity, Some Notes

I still prefer the feel of paper books in my hand.

I’m too busy these days to have time for any kind of review of the books that I’m reading, but I have been wanting to post more on this blog and since I type notes up on my books anyway, I might as well share some of my comments and choice quotes.

I encountered Sebastian Olma’s book, In Defense of Serendipity, through a reference in another book to the preface, “The Great Digital Swindle,” written by Mark Fisher. In Fisher’s preface he asks why the history which culminates in the invention of the iPhone has been so uncontested. “What if Silicon Valley was not…” he writes,” a stupendous success story, but a massive monument to failure.” This is the question that Fisher sees at the center of Olma’s project.

The etymology and history of the idea of serendipity: The “accidental sagacity” of finding the unexpected (and recognizing it) that one gets while exploring, collecting, rummaging. The knowing insight cultivated through the efforts of the collector which are mixed with the chance of the unknown. The discipline of knowledge and the time that is the necessary preparation to make use of chance. I am, of course, reminded of my home discipline of anthropology with its traditional emphasis on exactly this—the trained observer who moves to an unfamiliar context with enough time to hope that “something happens” and that this thing that happens will be just recognizable enough. If it were not recognizable then, of course the “accident” would go entirely unnoticed.

Olma describes today’s “infrastructures of innovation” are programmed to avoid “accidents” that might generate unexpected insights and are also not hospitable to a certain kind sagacity. “…strangely parochial approaches to innovation that stage the spectacle of the upgrade (which, from a non-technical perspective, often entails a faculty downgrade) as actual disruption” (23).

It turns out that the logic of finance disincentivizes products and services that might be truly disruptive. “It’s almost like in the olden days, towards the end of the Eastern Bloc: while the global party press (TED, Wired, O’Reilly, etc.) runs hot churning out the credo of the innovation economy, the hiatus between the image of the world according to the innovation gospel and real existing stasis is becoming so great that even the tru believers are starting to doubt” (26).

He cites David Graeber’s work on bureaucracy and “bullshit jobs”. “One of the perfidies of this system is that it combines urges requests for creative, innovative and, indeed, serendipitous behavior with a managerial infrastructure making exactly this impossible. The frustration generated by the daily experience of being trapped between constant demands for creative self-actualization and a professional infrastructure effectively preventing anything close to it obviously has an effect on our individual and collective psyches” (26). 

I’m developing career skills for a lifetime.

(It is difficult here, not to draw comparisons to what has happened to higher education in the US where buzzwords—”distinction,” “leadership,” and “innovation”—are printed alongside smiling happy student faces not dissimilar from the socialist-realist propaganda posters of old. The mass of marketing emphasis on innovation often seems inversely proportional to the amount of actual creative work being done the actual amount of chances being taken. Of course, this might be expected with the decline of broad-based reading, the managerial emphasis on educational outcomes, the marginalization of academic work, the overdetermination of “careers” and the dramatically precarious labor of the academy. The incentives for of “virtue signaling” combined with managerial conservatism and real threats to financial well-being lead to risk aversion as a survival strategy.)

Olma borrows Stiegler’s concept of the phamakon—both poison and antidote—to describe digital technology. The problem is not digital technology, but the structures and contexts in which it is used. We are not in a technological dystopia and don’t need to stop with the lament that this doesn’t feel like the future (Graeber and Fisher). “The future isn’t gone; it is merely hidden behind the ideological dust constantly thrown into our eyes but he stakeholders of a social infrastructure that has become dysfunctional with regard to real innovation and progressive disruption” (29) Technology forms part of the infrastructure which is preventing the contexts for generating the accidental sagacity. This needs to be “reprogrammed.”

“Serendipity needs to be defended as part of a political project whose goal is to undo the present so that the future can actually happen” (37)

Olma summarizes the history of valorization of the arts as having a “function” in economic development while at exactly the same time creative laborers have ben thrown into precarity. The “creative industries”paradigm puts these creative laborers to instrumental use and are valuable only to the extent that they serve the goals of capital. “The danger is that we get used to the idea that culture and the arts can be used to take care of all kinds of problems, while forgetting that they themselves require our care for the sake of their very existence” (49).

Innovation is not technical—it is “embedded in social practices that are innovative in their own right” (67, italics in original). Social innovation emerges from differences within the repetitions and imitations of the social contexts. It is not a question of entrepreneurs creating prototypes of new ideas, “prefabricated gestures of change” that are remarkably similar and apolitical. What Naomi Klein has described as a “changeless change.”

“The one thing you have that no one else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story and your passion. Start everyday your way.”

The digitalization of labor has been met with a lack of enthusiasm (“the big yawn”) leading to the managerial obsession with “employee engagement” and an emphasis on the notion of “passionate work.” “…the reason why passionate work has emerged as one of the great ideologies of our time is the fact that the big yawn is becoming deafening, that the neoliberal mutation of capitalism has turned the economy into a self-sabotaging system, systematically destroying its most important source of value: labor” (83).

“The point where digital office automation and emotional labor intersect is that of simulation. CBSs (computer business systems) and their administrators are not for one bit interested in the inherent professional value of performance simply because they have not got the means to understand what this would actually be. They simulate performance by way of algorithmic indicators and matrices whose abstract universality—the fact that they need to be applicable across diverse sectors in order to be economically viable—ensures their radical decoupling from the particular professional reality (epitomized, perhaps, by the infamous star ratings for hospitals, universities, and so on.)” (86) It is just a grand simulation where everyone knows that what they are doing is nonsense, but the system requires inputs. Unlike a system with a “Big Brother” watching, there is no central authority, there are only “consultants” (89). And what are consultants but interchangeable “professionals” from outside a given social context who are precisely not embedded in the local social practices. It seems to me that consultants would be antithetical to fostering and supporting serendipity. The secret, of course, is that consultants always provoke a big yawn.

“Have you got the latest upgrade?”

“One of the main reasons for the absence of exciting innovation today—increasingly even at the level of technology—has to do with what economists call “the financialisation of the economy”, i.e., the fact that economic performance is increasingly measured on financial return on investment (shareholders, etc.) rather than on successful products and services…where real economic output becomes secondary, it gets difficult to form a company culture based on the collective pride of being part of an organization that makes great stuff. Hence the false belief in the snake oil salesmen who claim to be able to create your company/product/service culture based on hot air” (92). 

“How long is it going to take until the fevers simulation of innovation, novelty and surprise collapses under the fatigue it constantly and simultaneously coproduces? Can we really expect those whose entire professional existence takes place within the flexible template of the eternal upgrade to deliver anything but more of the same.” (105)

Olma takes issue with the way that neoliberalism has neglected the social and digital infrastructure. They have not cared for infrastructure, but have let it morph into marketing and finance without any larger political context that might imagine a future. “…without the necessary political care, capitalism is without an ethical compass, with bring with it the danger…[of] a hubris that is toxic because of its inability to ask for the consequences of its actions” (120).

“Can You Pass the Acid Test?”

In the second part of In Defense of Serendipity, Olma begins with an interesting analysis of the mystique of “Silicon Valley”—a master signifier for the spatial success of creativity and innovation which is often invoked by policy and decision makers. Unproblematically evoking that, “…the future has become an image of the West Coast past” (132). These folks ignore the fact that the founders of companies like Apple were not following best practices. They were in a historical and social context where serendipity and knowledge converged to create unique conditions. “As the previous wave of radical, society-wide innovation gave us digital technology, computers and the Internet, we assume that innovation today is a question of merely upgrading our current operating system. This, however, is absolute nonsense. The future did not become digital in the Sixties and Seventies by projecting the past onto it. it became digital through a disruption caused by the convergence of two cultures of serendipity that imagined the future—each in their own problematic way—as a radical break with the past” (133). These two cultures as he describes are the cold war sciences inflected by the approaches of cybernetics—the study of control and communication in animals and people—and the hippy culture of “techno-mysticism” expanding the mind outside of politics. ARPANET as a serendipity machine met the serendipity of Acid-test parties.

The radical different societies and social practices imagined by hippies and other counterculturists met the institutional strengths of educational and research institutions. “The real session that can be drawn from Silicon Valley in terms of the social conditions necessary for future innovation is this quite simple: on the one hand, well funded academic infrastructure unencumbered by the logic of the market and valorization; on the other hand, a strong commitment to a politics of public space that leaves enough room for the non-utilitarian explorations of subcultures, artists and all sorts of misfits in the margins of society” (161). To meaningfully attempt to innovate today toward creating a sustainable future would, Olma argues, need to reject the “vacuous marketing religion for the digital industry” and the “neoliberal degeneration of our economies and societies” (162).

So what about the innovation and disruption of the so-called “sharing economy”? Olma sketches out the ways in which “platform capitalism” is mostly extreme profiteering and rent-seeking. “…for those who actually own something worth sharing, platform capitalism offers a way to monitize their assets by departing from them or, indeed, making them available for others to share. For those who own no more than their labour power, things looks a bit more sketchy” (172). “However, what does become increasingly obvious is that digital platforms represent a formidable instrument for an attack on the achievements of the labor movement—which for very good reasons we consider to be one of the pillars of modern, democratic civilization” (173). “Whether intended or not, behind the rhetoric of the sharing economy lurks a project of comprehensive deregulation by digital default, aiming at the proletarianization of substantial sections of the population” (176).

The final chapter of Olma’s book looks at the response that higher education (HE) should have to the present situation. He responds by arguing that the significance of serendipity to higher education is not just one of supply and demand, but the value of knowledge that emerges from serendipitous encounters and exchanges in the university”  (189). “The challenge of the university is not to make students more innovative and creative—whatever that might actually mean—but to enable them to maneuver the emergent social and economic topology as relatively sovereign individuals, i.e. not just as entrepreneurial bourgeois but as critical citoyen” (200, italics in original). “Today, at a time of chronic underpay and short-term contracts on the one hand, and student indebtedness on the other, there is not much freedom left on either side of the equation” (203).

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