BoSacks: The Profit Prophet: Planned Serendipity
As we proceed into the future of information distribution, several new factors have emerged that we should consider and about which we should perhaps be worried. I am fascinated by the new concept of writing an algorithm to create serendipity. I fully understand that editors have been doing it for hundreds of years, except they don't use a mathematical formula; they just "know" what their readers are interested in.
In 1998, in my e-newsletter, and then again just five years ago in this magazine, I predicted the development of a software algorithm I called a personal concierge—a program that would be your electronic best friend and butler, performing many tasks. We are very close to that happening now.
I wrote the following in 1998:
"We need a computerized, personalized agent that I have spoken of several times. … An 'agent' or 'concierge' of cyberspace. An 'agent' that fits where our wristwatches fit now. A total voice-recognition system, answerable only to us. A program that will know all that is knowable about us. An 'electronic friend' that will send birthday cards and meaningful presents to friends and family. It will pay all the bills, and make … appointments with coworkers and doctors. An agent so integrated into the cyber paths that my agent will call your agent to confirm or deny our availability to meet without our intervention. An agent that knows so much about us that it knows not only what we want to read, but also what we didn't know we wanted to read. That is to me the key to growth. … This 'thing'—or something very like it—will happen. In fact, I think it will happen in our lifetime."
Well, it seems that Google agrees with me and is in the process of creating just such an electronic editorial director.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, shared a new vision of his company beyond the current complex search business. He called the process serendipity, and he said, "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. … They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next. … A generation of powerful handheld devices is just around the corner that will be adept at surprising you with information that you didn't know you wanted to know. The thing that makes newspapers so fundamentally fascinating—that serendipity—can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically."
Even though I had predicted the eventual use of an electronic editor, I am fascinated by the concept of writing an algorithm to create serendipity. This quality is the charm and mystique of any good magazine, newspaper or book. It is the ability of a human to offer you knowledge in an apparently random process. The enjoyment of reading and stumbling upon something that you truly enjoy knowing, but didn't know you wanted to know. That is the true magic of a great editor—creating a collection of disparate words and thoughts that, when combined, offer a few moments of enjoyment.
Editors have been, as I mentioned above, creating this knowledge-based reading experience for hundreds of years. They did it based on experience and adeptness. They didn't use a mathematical formula; they just "knew" what their readers were interested in.
Is it possible that great editors are now on the verge of extinction by a serendipitous algorithm?
We are now all facing unprecedented and complex social issues created by machines, and I expect that with these new issues will come ethical-use issues as well. Are we willing to tell a cloud-based computer enough about ourselves to eliminate the need for human editors? Do Google and those computers, in fact, already know what they need to know? Eric Schmidt seems to think so. PE
Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a publishing industry consultant and president of The Precision Media Group (BoSacks.com). He also is co-founder of research company mediaIDEAS (MediaIdeas.net), and publisher and editor of a daily, international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web. (Read about Sacks' induction into the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame on p. 24.)
Want to comment on this article? Visit this article at PubExec.com and post your comments!