[11 September 2006]

By Rob Horning

A few days ago Tyler Cowen mentioned WSJ critic Terry Teachout’s post on shopping serendipity. Teachout suggests that shopping online doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of browsing serendipity that being in a store amidst the lovely merchandise does. This seemed totally off, as Cowen pointed out—the Internet makes haphazard connections happen all the time, and gives all sorts of tools to allow one to discover new media—Firefox is not called a “broswer” by accident. His eventual WSJ column on the subject suggests perhaps people will stop taking a chance on new things and will use digital shopping tools to acquire only what they already know they want. Teachout’s point would seem to apply to people more than to things—it seems like online dating/social networking geared toward pinpointing someone who already shares your precise interests could lead one to socialize only with people with a narrow range of interests. They permit you to shop for people, with the same fussiness we might apply to choosing window treatments. Luckily most people are either poor judges of themselves or intentionally mislead about of their own interests, so there are probably still plenty of surprising discoveries to be had.

Celebrating online serendipity, some of Cowen’s commenters pointed to Pandora, the service that automatically suggests new music based on the way music you already like sounds; but this seems to support Teachout’s point rather than undermine it—programming what “new” things you’ll expose yourself to doesn’t really count as serendipity. One’s exposure to something has to be nearer to random, or else the meaning of the word will have been stretched to the point where it’s meaningless—serendipity would apply to every form of shopping for novelty. Teachout’s column expounds on the benefits of the deep inventories and automated tools the Internet provides us to mechanize word-of-mouth recommendations and real-world browsing, but claims these are less “elegant” than the old process of stumbling on something we hadn’t planned on looking for. He cites shopping at the Strand, the chaotically organized bookstore in New York City, where you can’t find what you came for but leave with a bunch of stuff you didn’t know you needed. (I’d have the same experience at the library, when I’d be searching for one book—inevitably in someone’s carrel or lost—and would end up with half a dozen other books from the same call number section. This doesn’t make for a highly efficient dissertation research strategy.) So serendipity may be a nice word we use for our own impulsivity; it gives us an alibi for distraction and wastefulness and needless accumulation. Marketers and retailers succeed when we see their attempts to get us to impulse shop as leisurely and innocuous serendipity—rather than seeing ourselves as manipulated, we see ourselves as unduly fortunate.

More often than not there’s nothing accidental about the process of stumbling on something. Shopping serendipity is a state of mind more than a pure accident of circumstances; we shop for serendipity. Usually we are already looking for a reason to be captivated when we slip into browsing/surfing mode; perhaps we are never so vulnerable to making pointless therapeutic purchases as we are when we are in that state of mind. (This is why I would go to thrift stores for no reason and end up with horse head bookends, coffee mugs with and T-shirts with stupid or inscrutable slogans on them, paintings made by amateurs, a bunch of overcoats and raincoats—I was living in Arizona—and a dozen suits that don’t quite fit right.) We want to stifle that pursuit of inspiration without having to live up to the potential it awakes within us to want to make something, change something, do something. Shopping for serendipity lets us view the thing we inevitably “surprise” ourselves with in shopping serve as a substitute for whatever activity that restless energy would have driven us to. Shopping serves as a kind of anti-activity, a way of discharging that “accursed share” of surplus desire we have without bringing undue chaos into our lives.

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