Check out this fascinating article from the New Scientist (HERE)
From GPS to book recommendations, technology is eradicating uncertainty from life. But what if happiness depends on taking chances?
IT is pretty easy to go unnoticed as I follow my target along the busy high road, but when she turns into a residential side street, I start to worry. I slow down a bit, hang back and follow the woman from a safer distance.
Soon she turns and cuts through a large and rather lovely park, and even though I'm just minutes from my home, I'm surprised to find I've never been here before. By the time I regain the streets on the other side, the woman is nowhere to be seen and I am lost. I get out my smartphone and check the GPS for directions. "Turn right onto Gascony Ave," it reads, "then look for someone who seems lonely and ask to walk with them for a while." Here we go again.
Following random strangers to see where I end up is not the way I usually choose to spend my Saturday afternoons, but maybe it should be. With the rise of technologies designed to streamline our lives - from GPS devices to recommendation services - little need now be left to chance. But an emerging body of research suggests that chance is a vastly underappreciated ingredient in human happiness. Now, new apps called serendipity generators are encouraging us to buck the ultra-efficiency trend by putting some whimsy back into our lives. Can they help us overcome our inherent fear of uncertainty?
The rise of these new apps echoes a much earlier protest against the tyranny of modern efficiency. In the mid-19th century, the order brought about by the revolution in France gave rise to a cultural phenomenon known as flânerie. Dissatisfied with the urgency and alienation of the modern-day city, Parisian flâneurs hoped to encourage a certain kind of aimlessly enjoyable wandering in city life. A century later, cities became even more predictable as planners increasingly built them to conform to rigid grids, and maps became ubiquitous. Artists and activists once again resisted the orderly pragmatism, this time by using those maps to go nowhere in particular. For example, a collective known as the Fluxus artists created tongue-in-cheek instructions to "step in every puddle in the city".
The early internet wouldn't have been a target for the disaffected flâneur. When it took off in the 1990s, it was mainly populated by people sharing things they liked with people they didn't know; it was a way to engage with people we wouldn't normally meet. In other words, it was a pretty good serendipity engine.
Then something changed. "Coming out of the 20th century and into the 21st the rhetoric changed to one of optimisation," says Mark Shepard, an artist who designs serendipity apps. "Making things more efficient has dominated the way we think about what tech should do for us - it's the idea of machine as humble servant that makes life easier."
With that shift came the rise of recommender systems, algorithms that use your purchases, likes and browsing history, as well as those of other people, to work out what future purchases you might be interested in.
Every smartphone now has GPS to guide you to almost any destination. From choosing what to buy in the supermarket to finding your way without getting lost, the device in your pocket can make sure you'll never have to rely on chance again. We are optimised to within an inch of our lives.
As if on cue, apps have arrived that echo the flâneurs and get you lost on purpose. Many are a direct critique of the recommender systems they spoof. "These always send you to the safer options, at the expense of the more interesting places," says Ben Kirman, a computer scientist at the University of Lincoln, UK, who specialises in social games.
That's why Kirman created Getlostbot, an app that encourages users to break out of old routines and try different places. Download it, and it will silently monitor your Foursquare check-ins. When you become too predictable, always going to the same bar on a Friday night, for example, Getlostbot will send directions to one you've never tried before.
Over the past two years, a host of similar apps and services have quietly proliferated. Apps such as Highlight and Meetmoi, for example, connect you with nearby strangers. An online service called Graze sends you boxes of surprise food.
The serendipity stunts of flâneurs and artists might have seemed purely whimsical, but recent findings from happiness research suggest they were zeroing in on a surprisingly profound conflict in human nature.
Part of what makes recommender systems so appealing is that most of the time, removing uncertainty is a really good idea. "Human beings are constantly trying to make sense of the world," says Tim Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Understand something, and you are better placed to make sure it happens again if it's good, or prevent it if it's bad.
And so, when you're looking at the possibility of a bad outcome - be it a bad movie or getting hopelessly lost - nothing will make you more unhappy than uncertainty. Getting lost or being unhappy with a purchase are not life-threatening, but our reluctance to deal with uncertainty might be easier to understand in the context of its effect in far more serious situations. Consider, for example, a study of people who were waiting to discover the results of a genetic test for Huntington's disease. Those who found out their results - whether they were positive or negative - experienced a boost in well-being. But the story was different for the people whose tests were inconclusive: this group felt greater distress over the next year than even the people who had found out they would spend their lives with a life-threatening and debilitating disease (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 327, p 1401).
Why is that? Numerous studies confirm that when something unexpected happens, we respond more emotionally to it. The mechanism is the same whether it's amplifying a modestly unpleasant event or a very serious one: we spend longer thinking about it, trying to find an explanation. Once we come up with a reason, however, we adapt to it, integrating it into the mundane.
Taking the uncertainty out of life, then, seems like a good strategy for happiness.
Unfortunately, however, this picture is incomplete. Most research on uncertainty has tended to focus on the negative aspects, but over the past decade psychologists have begun to investigate its effect on good experiences. Their findings are building a strong case that the same mechanism that causes uncertainty to intensify bad scenarios could make it a crucial ingredient in happiness.
For example, Wilson had a theory that for pleasurable events, keeping the uncertainty would be beneficial. To test the idea he devised a series of experiments.
In one study, participants were told they were being given the chance to enter a competition, and asked to choose the two prizes they would most like to win. All were then told they had won. One group received their favourite prize straight away. The other group, however, would not find out which of their two favourites they would receive until the study ended. Those who were forced to spend time mulling over the two possible happy outcomes, Wilson found, hung on to their good mood far longer than those who experienced instant gratification.
They also spent longer looking at pictures of their possible bounty, lending support to the theory that people spend more time fixating on possible outcomes when something is uncertain. For happy outcomes, that amplifies the pleasure that can be derived from them (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 43, p 979).
An ambiguous pleasurable event is by its very nature harder to make sense of, forcing you to focus on it for longer, prolonging your emotional high. This gives rise to a phenomenon psychologists call the pleasure paradox: we want to understand the world, but that understanding can rob us of the pleasure we get from unexpected events.
These findings are just a small part of a body of research revealing just how much pleasure can be gained through the power of uncertainty, and suggesting that technologies that introduce an element of chance into our lives could boost our mood in the day-to-day.
This is why I find myself stalking a complete stranger through north London on a rainy afternoon. I am testing Serendipitor, a satellite navigation app that augments your directions with small suggestions that introduce minor slippages, detours or distractions.
Designers of such apps straddle a thin line between convincing people to take a risk and invoking the ire of people who think such apps are absurd. "Serendipitor was an ironic approach to saying: what does it mean when we're living in a society in which we need to download an application for serendipity?" says Shepard, who designed the app. Unlike simple chance, however, serendipity-generating apps weight the dice to ensure a positive outcome. Graze, for example, lets you opt out of foods you genuinely hate. Serendipitor gets you lost even as you are plugged into the reliability of Google maps.
Having made lunch plans, I use the app to look up the route. The walk to the restaurant should take just 6 minutes, and my phone shows a predictable route down the main road. As soon as I set off, though, Serendipitor sets me my first challenge: pick a person to follow for two blocks (Shepard says he borrowed many of his off-beat instructions from the Fluxus artists). Singling out a woman with a wheely suitcase, I fall in behind, and before long she crosses the road and leads me to the park I had never known was there. The advantages of the app are now starting to become clear, and I can't stop thinking about the fact that had I picked anyone else, I would have remained ignorant of this place.
I'm not the only one who is bewitched by thoughts of what might never have been. In 2008, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert recruited a group of people who were in happy relationships of at least five years. They split the group, asking half to write down the story of how they met their partner, and the others to describe ways the couple might have failed to meet. When quizzed afterwards, those who wrote about how they might not have met their partner were in a better mood - and felt a bigger boost in satisfaction with their relationship - than the group who wrote the true love story (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 95, p 1217).
Wilson refers to this as the "George Bailey effect" after the protagonist of It's A Wonderful Life who is shown a world in which he was never born. Thinking about all the ways a good thing might never have happened, he says, breathes new life into feelings that have long since lost the shine of novelty.
On top of the buzz I get from my chance encounter, it's also strangely exhilarating to be told to carry out random activities. After following the woman to the park, it took me a while to pluck up the courage to ask someone whether I could take their photo, but doing it left me with a pronounced, if silly, sense of achievement. Yet I can't help wondering, on any other day, would I actually use such an app? Wilson's research suggests otherwise: people consistently underestimate the positive effects of uncertainty.
Nobody knows this better than Kirman, who has found that although people respond well to the idea of Getlostbot, when it does suddenly appear on the screen telling them they need to try something new, they are reluctant to do so. In other words, people love the app, download it, and then don't use it.
If our resistance to uncertainty isn't enough of a problem, another stumbling block to widespread adoption of serendipity is commercial. There's no money to be made from an app that gets you lost.
But that doesn't mean we don't need them. Our increasing reliance on recommendations means people can end up living in a "filter bubble" that narrows our field of vision, says Danah Boyd, at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachussetts. She sums up the current approach to online technology as a mix of fear of the unknown and pressure to stay within these safe bubbles.
For this reason, Boyd reckons that these technologies will never make it big in the mainstream, but she still thinks they represent a useful countervailing mindset. "We've lost the recognition that connecting to people whose world views are fundamentally different is important."
She traces that to a shift in attitude around 2005 when, she says, media focus on online predators led to "a moral panic around stranger danger". Around the same time we saw a rise of social networks and people using the internet to connect only to familiar faces rather than people they did not know.
It's not just our online lives that have become limited. "One of the most important things is letting your kids embrace serendipity," says Boyd. "That's what it used to mean to get on your bike and go out to wherever. We have lost that." Could this umbilical access to recommender apps, GPS and other safe technologies be changing people's tolerance for risk? Over the past few years, the Pew Research Center in Washington DC has found, among other things, that Fewer US teens are learning to drive, the sale of bicycles has plummeted, and young people are less prepared to move to another state, even if it means a better job.
But there might yet be hope for engineered serendipity. Big companies have begun to play with the idea. In 2008, Apple reportedly applied for a patent on a system that automatically connects two devices if they stumble into close proximity - for instance, if you happen to find yourself in the same area as a friend without realising it. Google's Latitude application does the same thing.
I don't expect Google maps to start instructing me to follow strangers, but might the company use the technology to add, to its current "fastest" and "shortest" options, an option for "most adventurous"?
After all, by injecting a little more surprise into the technology we use every day, we might start to notice again what we miss in our relentless quest for efficiency. "This is the core storyline of the most popular books," says Boyd. "They stumbled upon something random and it was magical, and off they went to the wilderness. We fantasise about these things, but how do we allow fantasy back into our reality?"
Catherine de Lange is a writer based in London
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