serendipity in Thylstrup 2019

ambivalent spatio-temporal projects of desire and uncertainty. Indeed, as the
third part concludes, it is exactly uncertainty and desire that organizes the
new spatio-temporal infrastructures of cultural memory institutions, where
notions such as serendipity and the infrapolitics of platforms have taken
precedence over accuracy and sovereign institutional politics. The third part
thus calls into question arguments that imagine mass digitization as
instrumentalized projects that either undermine or produc

and meaning of
knowledge as it bandies about in our cultural imaginaries, between discoveries
and dead-ends, between freedom and control.

As the next section will show, one concept has in particular come to
encapsulate these concerns: the notion of serendipity. While the notion of
serendipity has a long history, it has gained new relevance with mass
digitization, where it is used to express the realm of possibilities opened up
by the new digital infrastructures of knowledge production. As such, it has
come to play a role, not only as a pl

tectural ideal in software developments for mass digitization. In the
following section, we will look at a few examples of these architectures, as
well as the knowledge politics they are entangled in.

## The Architecture of Serendipitous Platforms

Serendipity has for long been a cherished word in archival studies, used to
describe a magical moment of “Eureka!” A fickle and fabulating concept, it
belongs to the world of discovery, capturing the moment when a meandering
soul, a flaneur, accidentally stumbles upon a valuable find. As such, the
moment of serendipity is almost always a happy circumstance of chance, and
never an unfortunate moment of risk. Serendipity also embodies the word in its
own origins. This section outlines the origins of this word and situate its
reemergence in theories on libraries and on digital realms of knowledge

The English aristocrat Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter
to Horace Mann in 1754, in which he explained his fascination with a Persian
fairy tale about three princes from the _Isle of Serendip_ _63_ who possess
superpowers of observation. In his letter, Walpole linked the contents of the

turies after its invention, it suddenly took hold.
Who awakened the notion from its dormant state, and why? Sociologists Robert
K. Merton and Elinor Barber provided one influential answer in their own
enjoyable exploration of the word. As they note, serendipity had a particular
playful tone to it, expressing a sense that knowledge comes about not only
through sheer willpower and discipline, but also via pleasurable chance. This
almost hedonistic dimension made it incompatible with the serious ethos of the
nineteenth century. As Merton and Barber note, “The serious early Victorians
were not likely to pick up serendipity, except perhaps to point to it as a
piece of frivolous whimsy. … Although the Victorians, and especially Victorian
scientists, were familiar with the part played by accident in the process of
discovery, they were likely neither to highlight that fa

world of letters, as they recount, the word began making its way into
scientific circles, where attention was increasingly turned to “splashy
discoveries in lab and field.”67 But as Lorraine Daston notes, “discoveries,
especially those made by serendipity, depend partly on luck, and scientists
schooled in probability theory are loathe to ascribe personal merit to the
merely lucky,” and scientists therefore increasingly began to “domesticate
serendipity.”68 Daston remarks that while scientists sc

ipitous gold in the archive is
provided by Mike Featherstone:

> Once in the archive, finding the right material which can be made to speak
may itself be subject to a high degree of contingency—the process not of
deliberate rational searching, but serendipity. In this context it is
interesting to note the methods of innovatory historians such as Norbert Elias
and Michel Foucault, who used the British and French national libraries in
highly unorthodox ways by reading seemingly haphazardly “on the diagona

rial and sensitive to unusual juxtapositions and novel perceptions.70

English scholar Nancy Schultz in similar terms notes that the archive “in the
humanities” represents a “prime site for serendipitous discovery.”71 In most
of these cases, serendipity is taken to mean some form of archival insight,
and often even a critical intellectual process. Deb Verhoeven, Associate Dean
of Engagement and Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, reminds
us in relation to feminist archival work that

ness, flux,
overflow, and therefore potential collapse.”72

But with mass digitization processes, their fusion of probability theories and
archives, and their ideals of combined fun and fact-finding, the questions
raised in the hard sciences about serendipity, its connotations of freedom and
chance, engineering and control, now also haunt the archives of historians and
literary scholars. Serendipity has now often come to be used as a motivating
factor for digitization in the first place, based on arguments that mass
digitized archives allow not only for dedicated and target-oriented research,
but also for new modes of search, of reading haphazar

overies and unexpected
connections between sources.”73 And indeed, this sentiment reverberates in all
mass digitization projects from Europeana and Google Books to smaller shadow
libraries such as UbuWeb and Monoskop. Some scholars even argue that
serendipity takes on new forms due to digitization.74

It seems only natural, then, that mass digitization projects, and their
actors, have actively adopted the discourse of serendipity, both as a selling
point and a strategic claim. Talking about Google’s digitization program, Dr.
Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian and Director of Oxford University Library
Services, notes: “Library users have always loved browsing books for the

but on multiple levels—deep entry into the texts or the ability to browse the
virtual shelf of books assembled from the world's great libraries.”75 But it
has also raised questions for those people who are in charge, not only of
holding serendipity forth as an ideal, but also building the architecture to
facilitate it. Dan Cohen, speaking on behalf of the DPLA, thus noted the
centrality of the concept, but also the challenges that mass digitization
raised in practical terms: “At DPLA, we’ve

we were
free to experiment and provide novel ways into our collection of over five
million items. How to arrange a collection of that scale so that different
users can bump into items of unexpected interest to them?” While adopting the
language of serendipity is easy, its infrastructural construction is much
harder to envision. This challenge clearly troubles the strategic team
developing Europeana’s infrastructure, as it notes in a programmatic tone that
stands hilariously at odds with the curiosity it

“inspiration”—that is to say, for something new and unexpected that points
them towards possibilities they had previously been unaware of; what, in the
formal literature of user experience and search design, is sometimes referred
to as “serendipity search.” Europeana’s users need the platform to be
structured and predictable—but not entirely so.76

To achieve serendipity, mass digitization projects have often sought to take
advantage of the labyrinthine infrastructures of digitization, relying not
only on their own virtual bookshelves, but also on the algorithmic highways
and back alleys of social media. Twitter, in

gital resources is difficult for libraries. It is no
longer possible to just explore, browse the stacks and make serendipitous
findings. With Europeana, you don't even have a physical library to go to. So
I was interested in bringing a little bit of serendipity back by using a
Twitter bot. … If I just wanted to present (semi)random Europeana findings, I
wouldn’t have needed Twitter—an RSS-Feed or a web page would be enough.
However, I wanted to infuse EuropeanaBot with a little bit of “Twitter

xcept a special
focus on images in the library’s seventeenth- to nineteenth-century
collections.79 But there were also many projects that existed outside social
media platforms and operated across mass digitization projects. One example
was the “serendipity engine,” Serendip-o-matic, which first examined the
user’s research interests and then, based on this data, identified “related
content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA),
Europeana, and Flickr Commons.”80 While

egrating it into the mass digitization ecosystem.

Yet, while mass digitization for some represents the opportunity to amplify
the chance of chance, other scholars increasingly wonder whether the
engineering processes of mass digitization would take serendipity out of the
archive. Indeed, to them, the digital is antithetical to chance. One such
viewpoint is uttered by historian Tristram Hunt in an op-ed charging against
Google’s British digitization program under the title, “Online is fine, but

tal search engines with driving
“a high-powered car down a freeway, compared with walking or cycling. It gets
us there more quickly but we skirt the towns and miss a lot of interesting
scenery on the way.”82 William McKeen also links the loss of serendipity to
the acceleration of method in the digital:

> Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a
directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a
couple of key words into a search engine and you find

ace and then return. Or it might be a dark
chest of wonders, a life-changing first step into another world, something to
lead your life down a path you didn't know was there.83

Common to all these statements is the sentiment that the engineering of
serendipity removes the very chance of serendipity. As Nicholas Carr notes,
“Once you create an engine—a machine—to produce serendipity, you destroy the
essence of serendipity. It becomes something expected rather than
unexpected.”84 It appears, then, that computational methods have introduced
historians and literary scholars to the same “beaverish efforts”85 to
domesticate serendipity as the hard sciences had to face at the beginning of
the twentieth century.

To my knowledge, few systematic studies exist about whether mass digitization
projects such as Europeana and Google Books hamper or foster creative and
original research in

rical terms. How one would go about such a study is
also an open question. The dichotomy between digital and analog does seem a
bit contrived, however. As Dan Cohen notes in a blogpost for DPLA, “bookstores
and libraries have their own forms of ‘serendipity engineering,’ from
storefront staff picks to behind-the-scenes cataloguing and shelving methods
that make for happy accidents.”86 Yet there is no doubt that the discourse of
serendipity has been infused with new life that sometimes veers toward a
“spectacle of serendipity.”87

Over the past decade, the digital infrastructures that organize our cultural
memory have become increasingly integrated in a digital economy that valuates
“experience” as a cultural currency that can be exchanged to profit, and our
affective meanderings as a form of industrial production. This digital economy
affects the architecture and infrastructure of digital archives. The archival
discourse on digital serendipity is thus now embroiled in a more deep-seated
infrapolitics of workspace architecture, influenced by Silicon Valley’s
obsession with networks, process, and connectivity.88 Think only of the
increasing importance of Google and Facebook to mass digitiz

recognizable”89 to Google and other search engines in the hope of reaching an
audience beyond the echo chamber of archives and to distribute their archival
material on leisurely tidbit platforms such as Pinterest and Twitter.90 If
serendipity is increasingly thought of as a platform problem, the final
question we might pose is what kind of infrapolitics this platform economy
generates and how it affects mass digitization projects.

## The Infrapolitics of Platform Power

As the previous s

el surface’
designed to facilitate some activity that will subsequently take place. It is
anticipatory, but not causal.”109 The inscription of platforms into the
material infrastructures of the Internet thus assume a value-producing
futurity. If serendipity is what is craved, then platforms are the site in
which this is thought to take place.

Despite its inclusion in the entrepreneurial discourse of Silicon Valley, the
notion of the platform is also used to signal an infrapolitics of
collaboration, eve

(Merton and Barber 2004, 72). 66.
Merton and Barber 2004, 40. 67. Lorraine Daston, “Are You Having Fun Today?,”
_London Review of Books_ , September 23, 2004. 68. Ibid. 69. Ibid. 70.
Featherstone 2000, 594. 71. Nancy Lusignan Schulz, “Serendipity in the
Archive,” _Chronicle of Higher Education_ , May 15, 2011,
Serendipity-in-the-Archive/127460>. 72.
Verhoeven 2016, 18. 73. Caley 2017, 248. 74. Bishop 2016 75. “Oxford-Google
Digitization Project Rea

at the “controlled binary mechanics” of the search
engine actually make serendipitous findings “more challenging to find” because
“branching pathways of possibility are too difficult to code and don’t scale”
(Aleks Krokoski, “Digital serendipity: be careful what you don't wish for,”
_Guardian_ , August 11, 2011,
profiling-aleks-krotoski>.) 85. Lorraine Daston, “Are You Having Fun Today?,”
_London Review of Books_

/02/07/planning-for-serendipity/>. 87. Shannon
Mattern, “Sharing Is Tables,” _e-flux_ , October 17, 2017,
furniture-for-digital-labor/>. 88. Greg Lindsay, “Engineering Serendipity,”
_New York Times_ , April 5, 2013,
serendipity.html>. 89. Gillespie 2017. 90. See, for instance, Milena Popova,
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30. Bivort, Olivier. 2013. “ _Le romantisme et la ‘langue de Voltaire_.’” Revue Italienne d’études Françaises, 3.

61. Carpentier, Nico. 2011. _Media and Participation: A Site of Ideological-Democratic Struggle_. Bristol, UK: Intellect.
62. Carr, Nicholas. 2006. “The Engine of Serendipity.” _Rough Type_ , May 18.
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198. Medak, Tomislav, et al. 2016. _The Radiated Book_. .
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200. Meunier, Sophie. 2003. “France’s Double-Talk on Globalization.” _French Politics, Culture & Society_ 21:20–34.
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