Randomness, Serendipity, Bounded rationality … and Light Cones

Kudos to Greg Lindsay for continuing to Work Out Loud as he explores the role of place, network, and data in engineering the conditions for enriching for serendipitous outcomes. He has a wonderful recent piece on Medium, where he continues to refine his thesis.

As the one of the three regular readers of this blog, you’ll know that this is a topic we love to think about too, so here are a couple of reflections/observations on this next iteration of the networked exploration of this topic.

As I have previously described I think serendipity is a ‘second order’ effect. The planned combination of elements of a thoughtful physical space along with mobile, network, and sensor data can at best be thought of as engineering randomness, in the hope of enriching for serendipitous outcomes.

I risk sounding like a pedant – quibbling about the difference between randomness and serendipity, and using probabilistic language like ‘enrich’. But, if this is to become a more widely adopted component of how organizations work, and I really hope it does, it’s important not to overstate or oversell. Given the complexity of the human system we call work, at best, I think we can hope to enrich. I don’t think that’s being too pedantic, do you?

Mr. Lindsay goes on to ‘stake a claim’, and connects serendipity to the dark and unknowable place of ‘unknown unknowns’. I get where he’s going, I do, and I think it’s a great connection, but I was reminded of the concept of ‘bounded rationality’ and this gave me cause-for-pause.

Bounded rationality suggests that as I navigate life, I am making decisions based on the limited amount of information I have, and the finite limits of my cognitive ability. Within this model, unknown unknowns are, by definition, unknowable. It is information/data/knowledge so far removed from my context as to be irrelevant and have no utility to me or the decisions I may make. Put another way, even if I am randomly exposed to it, I am cognitively unable to make use/sense of it.

Where am I going with this I hear you burble? To clear things up, let’ borrow an idea from relativistic physics (said no one, ever) …

I was reminded of the concept of the ‘light cone’. The finite nature of the speed of light creates volumes of space-time such that light emanating from an event at some point (x,t) can never experience other points (x’,t’) outside of that cone. This wiki article and the accompanying visual may help here. Through a combination of forward-thinking place making and data I could experience people (information) in a way that was engineered to enrich for serendipity. Assuming my ‘eyes are wide open, and my brain is turned on’, there’s some hope that I’d be able to take an idea, a concept, or a thing and be able to rationalize it within my context to make a previously unknown connection. Because this took place within my context, it’s known (inside the ‘light cone’ if you will) and so represents a knowable unknown.

So, what does all this nonsense mean? Time to make my own claim on this now:

Through a combination of thoughtful physical space planning coupled with elements of rich mobile, network, and sensor data we can engineer the randomness of human interaction, in the hope of enriching for serendipitous outcomes. Such outcomes will be driven by engaged actors contextualizing previously unknown but knowable information/data/knowledge.

Thanks for listening,

DT

 
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