Notes on In Defence of Serendipity

These are the notes I took while reading In Defence of Serendipity by Sebastian Olma.

Introduction: Structuring the Defence

  • Obsession with inevitability of the long term future as an extrapolation of current trends locks us into a paradigm.
  • ‘the truly disruptive dimension that has been lost in contemporary discourses on creativity and innovation. This kind of disruption is different in both scale and form from say, Silicon Valley’s mockery of ‘making the world a better place’.
  • Precedence historically that change in paradigms caused by accidents & resistance (sagacity) are at the root of real innovation.
  • This is distinct from what she views as the ‘expanding popular nonfiction and management literature making the connection between serendipity and business innovation’.
  • Book is a commentary on today’s instituionalized views on creativity & innovation, broke into two sections (accident) and (sagacity).
  • Accident ~ analyzed from 4 dimensions
    • creative industries
    • social innovation
    • contemporary organization of labour
    • digital technologies
  • Sagacity ~
    • the goal of defiance is not so much the overthrow of the powers that be but rather the creation of conditions that ensure the survival of resistance or enhance the capacity to resist in the future
    • views what we are resisting today as the “ruling regimes of ideology and practice. in this sense, sagacity could be defined as the antithesis to futurology and trend watching: instead of extrapolating the future as a linear progression of trends in the current ‘system’, sagacity is that which intervenes as a wilful disturbance, opening said system to different possibilities.
    • chapter 5 example (cybernetics research & counter culture were two forms of resistance that led society in a vastly different direction)
    • chatper 6 example (sharing economy -> lols serfdom)
    • university/education - chatper 7

Chapter 1: Creative Industries

Becoming Creative: A Policy Invention

  • ‘the semantic content of the notion of creativity has been reduced to a smooth flow of happy homogeniety - including the right amount of TED-style fringe, misfits and subculture - that can be bureaucratically regulated and ‘valorised’.
  • as notion of ‘creativity’ became core to the future of the economy, governments latched on and launched programs to formalize the ‘creative industries’. central idea that in order to compete in the global economy countries needed to be dominant in creativity and innovation.
  • giving entrepreneurial artists, designers, and other ‘creatives’ an exponential position within the economy was supposed to turn them into the accidental leaders of the ‘creative revolution’.
  • although it’s not clear it worked, it caught on to other countries.

Becoming Functional: Culture & The Arts

  • ‘cultural capital is a mututal creation that uses the resources of shared traditions and the collective imagination to generate a public, not private, good.”
  • “while the idea of culture driving the economy provided a great argument for increasing arts budgets, it had two downsides: the logic of the market increasingly saw cultural policy as an extension of economic policy or the insutrmnealization of arts and culture in government’s quests for diversity and against social exclusion.

Becoming Dysfunctional: From Eidos to Service

  • it describes the process of culture as one that constantly regenerates an important source of social cohesion.
  • the problem with instrumentalization is that as soon as the arts - or those parts of artistic practice that are unable to survive off the ‘arts market’ are seen as valuable only if they explicitly serve social and political goals.
    • paradox ~ as soon as culture and the arts are forced to work in service of social cohesion, they lose the ability to do exactly that (back to ‘accident’ as core).
  • the difference today is that under the aegis of creative industries policy it becomes increasingly unthinkable that culture and the arts could do anything but serve society and economy in a linear, direct way.
  • this process preys on one of the essential ingredients society recquires for its perpetual regeneration.
  • crucial mistake: the increasingly aesthetic, immaterial and cultural character of economic goods and services would make it sensible to regard culture and arts primarily in terms of economic value.

Becoming Free: Creative Labour

  • “turning yourself into a startup seemed to provide an emancipative alternative to the creativity stifling, hierarchical structures of old capitalism.
  • rise of co-working/creative/maker :
  • “the notion of radical social and economic change through creative entrepreneurship is something that has been carefully crafted by the ideologues of the creative discourse in order to capture the often genuine drive for change by the younger generation.”

Becoming Fed Up: Creativity Has Left the Building

  • “creative industry policies reflect a reaction to the immaterialisation of products & processes (digitisation). it is high time we admit these efforts failed. there has been no creative transformation of our economies. overall it has stifled society’s most generative and creative capacities.

Chapter 2: “Social Innovation”: The Logic of Changeless Change


  • Social innovation shouldn’t project the technological & entreprenurial solutionism into solving our social problems.
  • Instead, we should understand that technological and etnrepreneurialism are embedded in a social fabric.
  • Social innovation should focus on enabling improvement and iteration within that social fabric. That social fabric should preserve experimentalisation and diversity.

Chapter 3: Digital Taylorism: Labour Between Passion and Serendipity

Attack of the Big Yawn

  • Idea that a picture for the end of capitalism won’t be a violent revolution or major economic depression, but rather a boring, laclustre ‘yawn’ and lack of activity.
  • Brings up the idea that managers focused on ‘employee engagement’, 13% are properly ‘engaged’. Combined with ‘burnout’ and ‘stress related illnesses’: ‘commercializing the collective disengagement by repackaging it as independent symptoms of psychological pathology’

    Passion of the Work

  • Work these days needs to be a ‘passion project’.
  • Believes this is a wishful panacea to more fundamental problems ~ stress, lack of performance, cynicsm – just get passionate!
  • Despite all this clamor about passion, engagement hasn’t changed, nor does it show in the great product/service innovations (seems like a bad argument IMO.
  • Claims that it’s because the form of capitalism we have is bent on destroying labour, which is the true source of value.
  • Emergence of debates around employee disengagement coincided with the first wave of office digitisation.
  • Goes on to claim that digitisation is not what it was sold to be, it’s become a tool for managers to quantify the results of labor and business, not a helpful tool for workers. Rise of consultants coincided with digitsation, now they could sell automated business processes as solutions.

Faking It: Passion as simulation

  • All of this happened at the same time as we started to chart the rise in conversation about ‘emotional labour’.
  • Alludes to Office Space scene wherein her manager says she needs more ‘flare’ than her 15 buttons.

Abstract passion, concrete bullshit.

  • Claims that lack of innovation is a result of the ‘financialization of the economy’. Increasingly businesses serve investors over great products for customers.
    • And says further - this causes the need for the emotional labour, to make up for the shitty cost-saving processes that hurt customers. Weak argument, iMO.
  • Cites ‘sharing economy’ platforms as taking advantage of workers with shoddy business models over competitors who did better for employees to please investors w/ growth.
  • Cites Thomas Piketty work on increasing inequality and wage/income stagnation for lower groups.
  • Relates to D Graeber ‘bullshit jobs’ (the increasing emotional labour to make up for stuff).

Exodus into serendipity

-Entrepeneurism as a reaction, specifically co-working. Born out of frustration of the confined office environment. Started as a sort of neo-bohemian movement. Serendipity was key from the start.

  • But we lost that thanks to WeWork, etc… increasingly commercialized effort that provides cheap workspace for small business.

Killing me smartly : serendipity in the hyper-taylorist office

  • Consultants came up with digital metrics to measure collisions & serendipity so they could sell co-working to managers.
  • Cites Zappos example of a metric of ‘collision hours’ for their new head quarters.
  • Surprises how fast the initially progressive idea was turned into a marketing tool for hyper-taylorist behavior control.

Anti-serendipity: entrepreneurship as mobile conformity

  • Entrepreneurship as status. Taught in schools.
  • Claims that this is what co-working movement was, and that the results weren’t promising, so this is unlikely to be a solve.
  • Theories about ‘long tail’ on the internet were wrong – people don’t have time to scroll millions of pages, so creates even bigger monopolies, potentially.

Chapter 4: Techgnosis: Redemption Ex Machina

Accident and Techno-mysticism

  • Technological singularity (kurzweil) is ideology a la Ayn Rand & Milton Friedman. Increasingly people latch on to this ‘mysticism’ as being a solve for our social and economic issues with technology – just need more technology!

Technological Singularity

  • I know about this, no need to re-write his points.

Techgnosis and the business of anti-enlightenment

  • Cites the ‘second machine age’ book as a ‘lighter’ version of Singularity, continuing entanglement of modern tech culture with myth, magic, and spirituality.
  • Humans have always mythologized technology, the problem is when mythology is used for the sake of stabilizing existing power structures that might be challenged by the emergent properties within new technologies. Even worse when the ‘stabilising techno mythologies’ come in the form of TED talks - enchantment of changeless change.

Demythologising Techgnosis: Anthropogenesis as Technogesis

  • Cites this philospohper who seems cool (Bernard Stiegler), who basically frames humanity as tool/technology users. This means that technology is a coherent and evolving part of us that we control. We shouldn’t separate it out into something other than humanity, it is core to what it means to be human, and we have agency over it.

The accident of neoliberal politics: infrastructural degeneration

  • tech singularity is an ideology: turns populations into docile followers of the dominant logic of power.
  • military, finance, etc… are real forces that act on the trajectory of our technology. need to reign those forces.

Teleology reloaded: revolution ex machina

  • so where’s the positive?
    • cites jeremy rifkin, zero marginal cost society who puts forward a positive vision of our recent technology that he calls the ‘commons’ -combines technological, economic, and social forces.
    • author applauds him, but says he is naive and it’s not gonna happen.

political pharmacology - beyond the commons

  • claims we need to fix political institutions so we can better guide our technology (he says he will return to this in the conclusion)

Chapter 5: Make Love & War: Silicon Valley’s Original Sin

Basically draws the parallels between the unique cultures of government funded developments in cybernetics and Bay Area hippie counterculture as the origin of the culture that created the digital revolution. He tries to make the case that each culture encouraged serendipity.

Introducing Jobs’ Law

  • In the modern day, innovation has a strong association with SIlicon Valley. Policy makers want thei region become the next Silicon Valley.
  • Claims this is an extension of the kind of thinking about the future that doesn’t work. The future isn’t a linear or exponential extension from the past, it’s a radical break - and he goes on to discuss how that was true for Silicon Valley at some point as well.

War & Innovation

  • Chronicles the Rad Lab @ MIT during WW2.
  • “It was a place where specialist scientists were encourages to cross over to other fields in order to be able to design and build new technologies.”
  • “The pressure to produce new technologies to fight the war drove formerly specialised scientists and engineers to cross professional boundaries, to routinely mix work with pleasure, and form, new interdisciplinary networks within which to work and live.”

Cybernetic Serendipity: Collaboration & Reduction

  • Wiener, while working on anti-aircraft fire control system @ Rad Lab, had to model human behavior. It was complex, and he would ask scientists across disciplines for their input ~ human behavior, physiology, control engineering… combined language from across them.

Cybernetic Serendipity: Collaboration through Reduction

  • The field was about reducing machines and biology to the same field ~ “ a uniform behavioristic analysis is applicable to both machines and living organisms, regardless of the complexity of their behavior “
  • It made the field a ‘local contact language’, enabling scientists from many disciplines to contribute since it was so overlapping. Claim that is ‘unleashed a huge wave of human creativity - leading to the development of the atomic bomb, computer, and new conception of a human being”.
  • Macy conferences: top academics across many fields, rather than presenting papers would share the ‘main ideas’ and engage in discussion about them. “Researchers from a wide variety of fields made substantial efforst to understand each other, drawing connections between diverse areas of expertise”.
  • Wiener didn’t want to build weapons, but others took his place ~ John Van Neumann eventually mutated cybernetics to the study of artificial intelligence. Based on the idea that processes in the brain are basically calculations that a computer could do with enough compute power.

Serendipitous Dreams: The inter-galactic computer network

  • ARPA set up in 1958.
  • In 1962 - John Lidlicker (a mathematician/psychologist & an attendee of the Macy conferences) became head of ARPA’s information processing technique’s office, whose primary goal was creating a ‘unified information network’.
  • ARPA supported packet-switching work by Paul Baran, which eventually became RAND & ARPANET.
  • Lidlicker already had grand visions for an internet-like thing, and was now in a position to fund it.
  • “APRANET was the result of a research culture where academic collaboration had become a rasically transversal affair, institutionalising the practice of interdisciplinary serendipity in a number of ways.” - What ways?

Acid Dreams: A different kind of serendipity

  • Young Americans had distrust of bureaucratic institutions: the ‘technological rationalisation’ that led to nuclear stand offs, and the participation in the Vietnam War. Authors at the time struck a nerve by pointing towards a dystopian future in which automation destroyed American values such as individuality & freedom of expression (C Write Mills, Lewis MUmford, William White’s the organization man).
  • The New Left emerged - shifting from class struggle issues to social/cultural issues (gender, race, abortion, etc…)
  • COutner culture & hippies grew out of Beatnik subculture. Came to form an interesting relation with rhetoric & innovations of cybernetics.
  • There was indeed a counter vulture vision that led the sarch for different forms of thinking and doing, of a different kind of community OUTSIDE society.
  • The social change that began with the change of MIND required no strategy or democratic process (a naive view, but a sensical reaction to their distrust of institutions –> turn towards what you can control).
  • As awlays it was from the fringes of society where mainstream culture had some of its previously closed doors kicked in, through which innovation could then travel.

Branding the encounter: Love meets war

  • Stewart Brand was the crucial character.
  • Became acquainted with Cybernetic thinking @ Stanford (Paul Errlichs system oriented approaches to evolutionary bioloy), what fascinated him was “offered a new and seemingly productive way to understand social power relations. If the cybernetic reduction could be applied to the social world as well, this seemed to imply that the human factor was one among many: ranging from spiritual to technological - and thus pointed to the possibility of taking part in a process of social innovation that did not have to rely on the ossified institution of traditional politics.”
  • Brand traveled between NY & SF. In NY: intellectualist artist communities… In SF: psychadelic counterculture that accepted new media technologies that coulc ontribute to new experiences.
  • NY art - an attempt to depart from the ‘human-centric’ notion of the artist as creative hero, instead trying to flatten creative authorship onto artistic systems wherein materials, audiences, and artists collaborated as equals
  • Wide variety of production (interdisciplinary like cybernetics) ~ 3D poems, psychedelic posters, multimedia shows)
  • Techno mysticism functioned as a platform for communication for the sake of artistic innovation - anti-institutional form of institutionalized serendipity.
  • Common ground: disillusionment, rejected process of politics with technology-immersed experimental exodus into a participative, communal future. TrIPs festival best epitomizes. Sounds like burning man.

Common ground: the whole earth catalog

  • Buck monster Fuller: comprehensive notion of design as a techno-humanist alternative to politics.
  • Brand turned himself into this designer with creation of Whole Earth catalogue.
  • Became a highly interactive communications platform (using letters!! and community sourced content) for the counter culture, intellectuals, high science, industry etc… new, geographically distributed community that could gain new perspectives
  • Articulated for the first time the confluence of cybernetics and counterculture.

Climbing out of the valley: Innovation’s Sagacity

  • claim: the emergence of the digital revolution was to a large extent determined by social processes whose motivation and direction had absolutely nothing to do with creating a start-up hub for the digital industry.
  • Two distinct movements: one unfolding in the context of military conflict, the other as an attempt to exit a world shaped by such a conflict
  • It was the hippies who engaged in the communal search for a radically different society that fed into the early business culture of Silicon Valley (I e Steve jobs).
  • Substantial innovation is not something that comes about by recreating already existing conditions of previous innovations.
  • Lesson: well funded academic infrastructure unencumbered by the logic of the market and vaporizations; a strong commitment to a politics of public space that leaves room for non-utilitarian explorations of subcultures (artists and misfits in the margins of society)…. Michael: what about something to struggle against?
  • Downside: the digital revolution became a marketing religion for the digital industry…. more on that in next.

Never mind the sharing economy…

The hype is over, or is it?

  • mid 2010s press and government started being more critical of sharing economy companies
  • author doesn’t believe it’s made its way to the public at large, though, and these companies still growing ultra fast.

To share or not to share?

  • Has nothing to do with sharing, usually when you share you don’t pay…
  • These companies do solve a resource efficiency allocation problem, but nothing about sharing.
  • Michael: it’s more commonly referred to as ‘on demand’ economy IMO.
  • New companies are coordinating supply and demand - digitally enabled expansion of market economy, not sharing.

Enter Platform Capitalism

  • Sharing economy -> platform capitalism, helps us make a more sober assessment of the claims.
  • Claim: removes gate keeper and reduces transaction cost. Yes to the latter, but now there’s a new ( and more powerful? ) gate keeper. Can cut across many regional markets. Entire point is to reach a monopoly position to extract rents. Fits well with Peter their competition is for losers.
  • Markets? Price is determined by algorithms simulating the market mechanism. Idk might be better? His points: hospital visit during surge could be oppressive.

Getting into the sharing economy

  • “Everyone can be a supplier” tails beautifully with the general cultural tendency towards more flexible and fluid lifestyles, and promises a more sustainable lifestyle (resource sharing).
  • Emerged in a moment of global financial and economic crisis - in the absence of employment opportunities.
  • “Instead of the labour revolution I had been promised all I found was hard work, low pay, and a system that’s puts workers at a disadvantage”
  • For those who own something worth sharing, helps monetize assets. If all you have is labor, doesn’t look so good.
  • The pre tense of sharing is a great way of getting people to self exploit in ways we have regulations to prevent.

Micro entrepreneurs and platform proletarians

  • miserable pay, lack of safety net, no social aspect of sharing ones work experience with coworkers
  • Digital platforms represent a formidable instrument in the attack on the achievements of the labour movement
  • “Where one thing is shared above all: low income”. Remarkable efficient machines for generating minimum wage jobs. “New feudalism”
  • Similar to “putting out” system in textile factories between feudalism and capitalism. 17th and 18th century. Merchant provided raw materials that workers could process at home, with family and flexible hours with their own machinery. Allowed them to avoid regulations of the guilds. Merchants controlled prices of materials and prices they bought back finished goods. When demand went down, merchants would offload risk to worker by buying less.
  • “Platform proletariat” - material tendency of pauperisation and the loss of know-how to create new things.

Sharing is the opium of the people.

  • revived forms of the coop - hacker/maker spaces and coworking.
  • Wherever they scaled, they lost sharing aspect to become commercial platforms.
  • Sharing in any meaningful sense is a marginal phenomenon.

When exodus is a sagacious act

  • The sharing sector of the conventional economy built on venture capital and exploited labor is a multi billion dollar business, while the idea of real sharing economy based on cooperatives, worker solidarity, and democratic governance remains too much of an afterthought.

University as Unungsraum: notes on HE’s Creative Transformation

Serendipity and the long shadow of black mountain

  • Black Mountain College - a free educational institution where young men and women could develop the knowledge and skills that suited them best in their quest to make a meaningful life. Similar to Bauhaus.
  • How can higher education harness digital technology to help with this whole creativity businesses

Of thumbs and heads damned to be intelligent?

  • HE is unwilling to adjust to empty headed, agile-thumb generation that does not need knowledge as stock anymore, but needs knowledge as process that feeds intuition, invention, innovation.
  • Serena believes the principle of unsought discovery through unexpected encounters can help HE.
  • Olma’s critique is that it must be holistic, the end shouldn’t be determined by the market. Intrinsic values important.
  • Technological and entrepreneurial skills are important, but need to be integrated into a pedagogic culture encouraging the young to question the present for the sake of finding their own way to contribute to a desirable future as an act of self determination.
  • The market can never generate the diversity of input necessary for truly path breaking innovation.

Virtuosity: rethinking Bildung between creativity and citizenship

  • Sennett’s the craftsman is a defense of craftsmanship that goes beyond mere economic matters. The capacities our bodies have to shape physical things are the same capacities we draw on in social contracts.
  • Conception of virtuosity necessitates a continuum that connects professional skill of the craftsman to politics skill of the citizen.
  • Physical part is a bit out-dated for modern world. How can we rethink for digital?

Virtuosity, Sagacity and the need for Ubungsraum

  • limiting the question of knowledge to that of technological and entrepreneurial skill reduces human beings to the functional extensions of a technological system; ignoring the crucial importance of savior-Vivre.
  • As commodities, as well as the ways they are produced, become increasingly cultural, communicational, semiotic, expressive… the sphere of production takes on many of the characteristics that were traditionally assigned to the world of politics.
  • The virtuosity required by this new spatiality is one that is immediately and radically social. Intrinsically relational and often involves performative dimensions.
  • The job is not to make students more innovative and creative, but to enable them to manoeuvre the emergent social and economic topology as relatively sovereign individuals.

Higher education as Ubungsraum for Social Innovation

  • Training must make the master craftsman and generate sagacity as a prerequisite to serendipitous disruption of current cultural and economic templates.
  • Even if one is submersed in a new and overwhelming techno-cultural infrastructure, one does not need to submit to the logic of the machine.
  • Need modes of education that enable young minds to critically engage with today’s rapid technological progress (?). Critical and analytical capabilities of the digital age.


In defence of serendipity

  • it’s important, and we need to remove ideological roadblocks: ‘creative industry policies’, ‘social innovation’, ‘digital taylorism and mass entrepreneurship’, ‘techno mysticism and singularity’, sharing fraud platform capitalism, contemporary higher education.
  • These all hope that ‘accidents’ will happen within the current paradigm to help our futures.
  • Two ideological culprits: the benevolent powers of digital technology and the illegitimate equation of innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Innovation is a function of how heterogeneously minds are able to think and make.
  • Basically we are constrained by our external environment. We need a social infrastructure that provides for heterogeneity, dissent, and real difference
  • We need more room to think outside the confines of the market and the algorithmic logic of digital technology.

A radical politics of innovation

  • What does it mean to say that serendipity should be moved from the individual to society?
  • “Radical Islam” and “Silicon Valley high tech liberalism” - those are the only two ideologies motivating people to change the world today. (Assange) He believes their world views are no match for those two because they are distributed communities that have given up on engaging with politics: which is the process by which an ideology peacefully conquers the modern center of power (I.e the state)
  • We can’t just abandon politics and create gardening communities and hope that leads to change (magical like technological singularity).
  • Something about ‘the public sphere’ - it is abstract unlike a community, it persists through a constant creative struggle. As a social abstraction, it requires the labor of politics (unlike a community)
  • This is why the public sphere is a logical habitat for serendipity as a force for social food. A radical politics of innovation must be directed towards the recapture of the state by an ideology that is a polemic for the reinvention of the public sphere whose accidental sagacity will generate potential futures we don’t even dare to dream about.