Overhaul 2: Identifying Topics to Work On

On Friday, I decided to look for an out-of-the-way cafe to think about my FYP topics as well as to explore more places in Singapore, and this spontaneous trip inspired 2 more topics because: 1) I had gotten lost, and 2) a reflection on serendipitous occurrences when I am brainstorming on the potential topics.

4) The Art of Getting Lost

I had in mind to go to a cafe to work on FYP ideas, but I didn’t decide on which one, so the final choice of going to the out-of-the-way cafe was made during the course of my journey with plenty of last minute bus changes. Because I’ve never been to that part of Singapore much before, my sense of direction was totally warped, and it took a bit of intuition, spontaneous decisions, and resorting to Google Maps when I felt I was in trouble to get to my destination.

But the whole experience was fun. It was freeing. It did not frustrate me as I managed to discover places and sights I’ve never seen before. So it dawned on me—being ‘lost’ can be a good thing.

“On how one orients himself to the moment,” Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves—to the moment, to the world, to our own selves—is perhaps the most elusive art of all, and our attempts to master it often leave us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-transcendence.

“Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction,” Rebecca Solnit wrote, “and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

Terra incognita is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented. The expression is believed to be first seen in Ptolemy’s Geography circa AD 150. The term was reintroduced in the fifteenth century from the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s work during the Age of Discovery, but is now also used metaphorically by various researchers to describe any unexplored subject or field of research.

But the maps we use to navigate that terra incognita—maps bequeathed to us by the dominant beliefs and standards of our culture—can often lead us further from ourselves rather than closer, leaving us discombobulated rather than oriented toward the true north of our true inner compass.

In his magnificent 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed, British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher set out to explore how we can improve those maps and use them to better navigate the meaning of life. Schumacher begins with an apt anecdotal metaphor for how these misleading maps are handed to us:

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “This is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.

Instead, Schumacher set out to “look at the whole world and try to see it” — which requires examining what it really means to map knowledge and meaning in life, including its invisible, unprovable layers, a “philosophical mapmaking. To do that, however, we need a tolerance for doubt—more than that, an active embrace of uncertainty. Corroborating the idea that our compulsion for plans limits us, Schumacher cites the famous José Ortega y Gasset line that “life is fired at us point-blank”.

For the past 3 years, it has been a roller coaster ride of being really sure of myself and my abilities and then having it all taken away after a string of ‘failures’ that resulted in me losing myself, and finding myself yet again. Being lost can happen to anyone at any point in life, and I wish to communicate that if one accepts it, he or she will be able to reap the benefits.

Personally, I think my generation are taught that being ‘lost’ is a bad thing—we’re supposed to know what we’re doing, what we want to do, where we’re heading to etc. The emphasis is always about the destination rather than the journey, what have you accomplished instead of what have you gone through.

There are a lot of comparisons done as well, on an individual level, social level, subconscious level and so on. For example, in university, there is a certain expectation that we’re supposed to be able to master the subject we’ve chosen to read in, that we’re supposed to adhere to it fully and not be ‘lost’ whilst pursing it. But we’re all unique individuals with different capacities, so why is there a pressure to do things according to the status quo’s expectations? We’re all unique individuals and we should be given the right to map our own universe, and that includes the freedom to be lost along the way, to make mistakes, to do things according to our own pace.

I supposed this idea can be summarised in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Notable keywords: lost, nonconformity, freedom, mapping, societal pressure

Links accessed:

5. On Serendipity / Fate vs Choice

I can’t help but notice little serendipities that occurred during the course of my exploration of topics; I settle on a few ideas and then I chance upon new information on it.

The first instance is when I was delving into the cosmological direction, where I was doing some preliminary basic research without much expectations, and I stumbled across a book that had important information that I needed in a very succinct form. After reading up more, I stumbled across the concept of the Quadrivium, which consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. It was a crucial discovery since I’ve been wanting to link music to this direction and now I have a book on it as well as a good resource to develop visuals from.

Adding on to that, I was lying in bed thinking of possible directions when I was reminded suddenly of Mihoko Ogaki’s cosmology-inspired art as well as Kohei Sugiura’s Summa Cosmographica. And after reading how Ogaki is inspired by death, I am instantly reminded of the other direction I had on coping with loss and learning to come to terms with our mortality.

There were just so many dots that connected—dots that came up along the way and dots from the past! Not to mention that after a blog mentioned how Ogaki’s sculptures were reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s quote “we are made of star stuff”, Carl Sagan kept popping up intermittently throughout the course of my exploration.

The second instance is that of music and emotions, where I wrote a long story about my thought and ideas but it was all over the place. Then I began to read Look Both Ways by Debbie Millman, and one of her essays happened to be on the effect of music, and it articulated what I wanted to say coherently—of how music is able to conjure up memories so vividly, and this is especially through the attachment of emotions to these memories.

The third instance is related to the reality-illusion dichotomy, and again I was reading the book in the cafe, particularly her essay ‘Peonies’.

In the essay, she wrote that she wondered if the peonies, that were growing along the sidewalk, were real since they disappeared one day suddenly. She then referenced Plato’s theory of the 2 distinct levels of reality in a way that I could understand well (since she herself is a designer and I guess it helped that we are, in a way, on the same wavelength), on how Plato theorised the ‘forms’ and ‘forms of things’ as well as how he believed that in our everyday perception, we suffer from the illusion that the things and objects around us constitute the ultimate reality. Furthermore, he argued that our ideas not only reveal our subjective inner states, but the true nature of reality as well.

Coupled with the above examples were also stumbling upon relevant information whilst article-hopping on the internet.

Serendipity is an amazing mysterious thing, and it had helped in so many discoveries, more notably in the field of science where we hear how penicillin was discovered. Thus, it can clearly help designers in their work. It really makes me wonder if serendipity can be cultivated. Is it really all down to luck and chance?

Speaking of luck and chance, another question appeared in my head—are our lives made by fate or by our choices? Is everything set in stone by destiny the moment we were born or do we get to pave our own roads as we live?

• UPDATE v.1 •

I came across an online article about how technology is able to ‘cultivate serendipity’, in particular the aggregator systems:

Serendipity can help develop new ideas in fields like science and art. These “discoveries by accident” are seen as a powerful tool in creative processes. But how can we design to add serendipity as a feature?

Nowadays we have access to online tools which try to generate “happy accidents”, basically helping users reach content they would  not find themselves (or didn’t even think of finding). We have identified three categories of tools supporting serendipity this way.

1. Curation

Curating involves selecting and organising objects for exhibition, normally at a museum. Facebook or twitter can be seen as a source of curated information. Contacts share links to media they are interested in, giving other contact access to potentially unknown but appealing content. Music services supporting social network interactions, like Spotify or iTunes Ping, let people recommend songs to friends.

While curation is a great way to have access to valuable content, it is not clear whether it can lead to serendipitous events. Contacts in social networks are actually selected by the user’s personal preferences, narrowing down the variety of potential “curators”. In addition, curators select what to share according to their taste. All this removes the randomness necessary for a truly serendipitous experience.

2. Recommendation Engines

These engines supply recommendations based on conclusions drawn from data mining, that is, the automated analysis of large amounts of data using computers.

Spotify’s ‘related artists’ feature that recommends artists that sound similar to the artist you like to listen to

Recommendation engines can be used, like curation, to successfully expand our knowledge about a certain topic. However, by focusing on what can be analysed and compared,  they are constrained to finding patterns and similarities, possibly dismissing unrelated content that could lead to serendipity.

3. Random Access Tools

These tools are based on random access to content. ChatRoulette is one of these. This service randomly connects people who have webcams, allowing them to have conversation with people they would have never had the chance to have a chat with.

Access to random content has been promoted as a way to experience serendipity. However, presenting people content they may not be interested in can backfire on the service. Users may end up feeling frustrated and bored, and therefore dismiss the service.

But what is wrong with these methods? As we can see, it is not clear whether online tools can help boost the ratio of serendipitous experiences. Presenting related (recommendation engines, curation) or unrelated content (randomly) does not seem to provoke “happy accidents”. What is the problem, then? The biggest problem behind these failed attempts is intentionality.

Serendipitous events are “not sought for” or are found “by chance”. We may stumble upon interesting songs, pieces of news or movies using these tools, but we will be expecting it. By intentionally looking for these events using the aforementioned tools, it’s no longer an unsought event. A pure Catch-22 already known by designers.

So is there a way to make serendipity happen more often?

Though difficult, we can actually design for serendipity, but not artifially producing serendipitous events. Instead, we can design to prepare the user to make the most of events that seem random and unrelated, but that could lead to great discoveries if they are associated with other ideas in the user’s mind.

Developing our own skills and expanding our knowledge is still the way to go if we want to acquire insight from experience. Computers cannot replace humans in that process, but they can hopefully help people become better observers and better thinkers.

Notable keywords: luck, fate, chance, serendipity, choice, randomness

Links accessed:

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