Creating enhanced serendipity

By Ross Dawson on May 28, 2006 | Permalink

A topic of great importance – serendipity – has suddenly surfaced in public debate. William McKeen, chairman of the University of Florida journalism department, recently wrote an article in the St Petersburg Times titled The endangered joy of serendipity, suggesting that in an online world we are less likely to stumble across the vital information you aren’t specifically looking for. Steven Johnson, author of among other titles Everything Bad is Good For You, responded with a blog post Can we please kill this meme now, strongly disagreeing that online information is worse for serendipitous discoveries than print, sparking substantial debate on the theme. With the mainstream press commonly taking their stories from discussions in the blogosphere, not surprisingly the BBC took up this issue of the importance of serendipity, with a piece Serendipity casts a very wide net.
I’ve been speaking about serendipity for some years, and more specifically the concept of “enhanced serendipity”, that is, deliberately making fortuitous and valuable accidents more likely to happen. As part of the debate Nicholas Carr wrote a post expanding on the history of the word serendipity. However he missed out an important detail of the story. As Carr wrote, the word originates from Horace Walpole, who coined it from the story, The Three Princes of Serendip. The three princes, in their adventures, had the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries. However these didn’t just happen to them; the princes actually helped to create them. In the following tale, excerpted from a retelling of the The Princes of Serendip by Richard Boyle, the three princes are advisors to the great Emporer Beramo.

Beramo has fallen in love with a beautiful slave girl called Diliramma, who one day questioned his honour in public. In a fit of rage, he had her bound and abandoned in a forest. The next day, Beramo was filled with remorse and ordered a search for his paramour. No trace of her was found, leaving Beramo ill with sorrow.
Witnessing the emperor’s suffering, the princes advise him to build seven beautiful palaces and to reside in each one for a week. In addition, the best storyteller in each of the seven most important cities of the empire is to be brought into his royal presence to recount a marvellous story.
Over the weeks, in his various palaces, Beramo listens with appreciation to six of the stories, his health steadily improving. While listening to the seventh story, about a ruler who spurns his lover, Beramo suddenly realizes that it concerns Diliramma and himself. On being questioned, the storyteller reveals that he knows Diliramma and that he is searching for her lord to tell him that she still loves him despite his act of cruelty. Overjoyed, Beramo sends for Diliramma and they are reunited.

In this story, the princes have created a strategy for making a happy accident more likely to happen. This is a great example of enhancing serendipity, not just being subject to it. That is what we must seek to do, in creating links between ideas and people that would be enormously valuable if only they were made. So many of the emerging technologies of today, from blogs to collaborative filtering systems such Last.FM, absolutely facilitate happy accidents.
The debate on the topic is very important. I believe that online search tools are currently at a very early stage of development, and so they are hardly likely to cut us off from accidental discoveries of relevant or interesting information any more than we have been in a print world. However we are moving closer to a time when we will be able to hone in on what we are seeking with great precision. I have previously envisaged a “serendipity dial” which we can situate either to give us great accuracy, or a greater possibility of accidents in our discoveries. I don’t share McKeen’s concerns. Most people are far more diversely informed than they were not long ago, except by choice. The tools we have are not at fault. As we move forward, we need to be highly aware of the degree of serendipity we are choosing. The new world of information gives us that choice.

Total immersion video games

By Ross Dawson on May 27, 2006 | Permalink

The whole direction and ultimate point of video games is total immersion. It should be as if you are actually in the game’s environment, acting as you would, and fully living the experience. The VirtuSphere is certainly a step towards that, despite the graphic quality still not being there to support it. However the next years and decades will, step by step, move towards games being virtually indistinguishable from our everyday world.

“The VirtuSphere takes gaming to a whole new level, allowing users to walk inside a virtual space “while being totally immersed” — through the head-mounted display system. Built-in sensors detect movement and transmit that information to a linked computer. A special platform inside the sphere allows it to rotate in any direction as the user walks.”
“The VirtuSphere is currently the only technology in the world, which permits the user to move about in virtual space through the most natural movement of all – by walking”.

In from TechEBlog
Check out the video!

Blogging, PR, influence, and free conference calls

By Ross Dawson on May 25, 2006 | Permalink

Today I received my first approach as a blogger by a PR agency, trying to promote their client’s wares to me. I guess that indicates a certain level of success, though the top bloggers are swamped not just by PR agencies, but also by other bloggers, all trying to get links and attention. Influence is now not held just by journalists, but by anyone who chooses to set up a blog and happens to attract a reasonable audience. In fact, bloggers can be stronger “opinion-makers” than journalists, because they are often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as less in thrall to corporate power.
By sheer coincidence, I happen to be a “customer” of the company the PR agency was flogging, and I think they offer something worth highlighting, so it was worth their while approaching me. The company,, offers, not surprisingly, free conference calls. I use them for all my conference calls. Previously I have had occasional technical glitches, but recently everything has worked fine, and it’s a very good service at a very agreeable price. Their business model is supported by getting a portion of the cost of the inbound call (which is not an 800 number). Their new offering is Simple Voice Box 2.0, which is a free unlimited length voice mailbox system, which allows people to dial in to hear messages, creates .wav files for distribution, includes RSS subscription etc. Again, what seems like a great offering at the right price. Helping keep telco competitors on their toes, something they still need.

The collaborative space of blogs and newspapers

By Ross Dawson on May 24, 2006 | Permalink

Technorati has just announced a deal with Associated Press (AP) that will place a “top five most blogged about” list of stories on more than 440 media sites – many of them local newspapers. In addition, they will place a feature of “who’s blogging about” the story for the AP stories that appear on the local sites. This feature was first introduced by the Washington Post last year, when I wrote about “the cycle of media” which this enables. These features both allow readers to know what other people find the most interesting from everything in the mainstream media, and to immediately see and engage in the conversation stemming from those articles. More recently I wrote about the symbiosis of mainstream media and blogs. Newspapers and other mainstream media are still the primary reference points for what’s happening in the world, and the first pass of editorial commentary on that. Yet mainstream media increasingly feeds off the dialogue and news that surfaces in the blogosphere. News sites are also vastly enhanced by having the conversations that stem from their articles being visible to all. Anyone who wants to comment on a media story can have their thoughts available to readers globally, not just on a single site, but through an entire world of syndicated media. This move is particularly important as it is not just on a single newspaper, but covering the links that hit a story at any point in the news syndication process. Technorati’s initiatives – and their uptake by mainstream media – are making the system into a tightly enmeshed collaborative space for identifying and disseminating news through society.

Global innovation and networks

By Ross Dawson on May 23, 2006 | Permalink

IBM has recently released its second Global Innovation Outlook report. I referred to a related initiative – IBM’s Global Technology Outlook – in the second edition of Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships as an example both of collaborative innovation, and how IBM provides customized and highly relevant insights to its clients. IBM brought together 250 thought leaders in five locations around the planet to think about innovation and the future. The insights are available in a publicly-available report, and also in customized interactive presentations for large clients. The report is excellent, not least because it hits on most of the themes of this blog 🙂 It points to innovation today being: Global, Multidisciplinary, and Collaborative and open. This ties in totally with the story I often tell, of how increasing depth of knowledge and specialization requires collaboration between disciplines, which must be global in scope, and requires new models to draw together disparate strands. In its examination of the Future of the Enterprise, the report focuses on networks, also touching on other key themes of strong interest to me, including “reputation capital” and how value is aggregated. Well worth a look.

Talking about MySpace Generation

By Ross Dawson on May 15, 2006 | Permalink

Reuters just came out with a syndicated story on MySpace titled As freedom shrinks, teens seek MySpace to hang out. It describes how MySpace has matched its moniker by creating a place where young people can explore their identity under their own terms. The article quotes me about these issues of teen identity, and how technology is a natural landscape for those who have grown up with it. The way I see relational technologies such as mobiles, chat forums, multiplayer roleplaying games, video sharing and so on, is that they extend our capacity as humans to relate. People have a built-in drive to connect with others, and now that has a far wider canvas across which to express itself. We can now discover many of the latent propensities and characteristics of humans, because we have been given new tools to explore our human identity. In some contexts, face-to-face interactions are absolutely superior, however that does not mean that it is not fundamentally human to connect in other ways too. It is the so-called MySpace generation that is exploring these new ways of relating, and as-yet undiscovered aspects of what it means to be a human being.

Exploring new models for creating content

By Ross Dawson on May 7, 2006 | Permalink

This in from Shannon Clark of MeshForum fame: A Swarm of Angels is an experiment for a new model for content creation, well worth a look. Its objective is to raise a £1 million pound movie from contributions, and freely distribute the resulting movie to 1 million people, all within one year. This creates collaborative effort, bypassing Hollywood, and allowing the outputs to be shared and remixed, by issuing it on a Creative Commons license. There’s a good chance that they’ll create something worthwhile, with their explicit intent to make a cult movie. The fund-raising model here is difficult to scale, but it can carve out a niche. The point is we need to explore new models for content creation and ownership – the experiment with this new model may uncover new possibilities that will indicate some of the many paths forward media creation will take.

Video goggles will unleash mobile video

By Ross Dawson on May 6, 2006 | Permalink

A year or so ago I was looking around to see what was available in the way of wearable video displays (video glasses) so I could use my laptop in privacy with a massive display while I’m flying. After checking out the field (see for example this recent review) I decided to wait until there was something better available. One of the big issues has been with both head and eye comfort – these will not be used unless they really are completely comfortable and immersive. The field is now evolving quickly, including a just-announced wearable video display from an Israeli start-up Mirage Innovations, unfortunately not yet commercially available. However other offerings are coming out, including the single-eye EyeBud 800, intended for watching iPod video. I think the offerings will have to improve a little further until I’m ready to wear one for extended periods, but they should reach the right quality in the next year or two. At that point, expect to see plenty of people around wearing video goggles. Once this is commonplace, mobile video and content will be unleashed. An iPod video screen certainly has its limitations. However if you can get the equivalent of big-screen viewing wherever you go, that’s a different story. This is definitely a transformational technology in content delivery and more.

Six Facets of the Future of PR

By Ross Dawson on May 5, 2006 | Permalink

I recently wrote an article on the future of PR that appeared in the premier March edition of Marketing magazine. The piece, titled Six Facets of the Future of PR (pdf), gives a quick view of what is driving PR today. The six facets I identify are:
1. Clients expect more
2. Media is transformed
3. Business is a conversation
4. Information flows in every dimension
5. Transparency is a given
6. Influence networks are at the heart
The article then goes on to discuss emerging opportunities for the PR profession.
The full text of the article is posted on teh Permalink below here.


Monitoring the future

By Ross Dawson on May 4, 2006 | Permalink

Last week I caught up with Michael Hopkins of Monitor Group. Chris Meyer, author of books such as It’s Alive, and previously Director of the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation (CBI), came to the Monitor Group after Cap Gemini closed down the CBI, to establish Monitor Networks. Its very interesting business model includes acting as a talent broker, a rather unusual activity for a top-tier strategy consulting firm. Monitor Networks has recently set up FutureMonitor, which is an online community that brings together many people’s insights to gain perspectives on the future. There are a lot of directions this could go, including providing decision-relevant prediction markets for clients. Certainly FutureMonitor is well worth a look to gain some of the distilled perspectives from its participants – very interesting stuff.