Digital Is Killing Serendipity

The buildings are the same, but the information landscape has changed, dramatically.

Today I’m going to write about the college course booklet, an artifact of another time. I hope along the way we might learn something about digital technology, information design, and why we keep getting in our own way when it comes to applying the lessons of the past to the possibilities of the future. But to do that, we have to start with a story.  

Forty years ago this summer I was a rising Freshman at UC Berkeley. Like most 17- or 18- year olds in the pre-digital era, I wasn’t particularly focused on my academic career, and I wasn’t much of a planner either. As befit the era, my parents, while Berkeley alums, were not the type to hover – it wasn’t their job to ensure I read through the registration materials the university had sent in the mail – that was my job. Those materials included a several-hundred-page university catalog laying out majors, required courses, and descriptions of nearly every class offered by each of the departments. But that was all background – what really mattered, I learned from word of mouth, was the course schedule, which was published as a roughly 100-page booklet a few weeks before classes started. 

Consisting of thousands class summaries organized by department, the booklet was the product of centuries of evolving information design. Its thin newsprint pages were easily navigated and steadfastly accurate. This unassuming information artifact was the only way that tens of thousands of students, faculty, and administrators could – quite literally – get on the same page. It did its job – even if the page itself consisted mainly of smudgy nine-point type.  

The summer before college I went on an American Field Service trip to the UK, working outdoors with the National Trust. I spent the summer building stone walls, maintaining forests (yes, the English literally garden their woodlands), and clearing ponds. Time slows when you spend your days outdoors with groups of kids from around the world, you mark the passing hours through the accomplishments of physical labor: the procession of a newly built wall, the number of invasive trees you’ve culled from a stand in Wimbledon Common. Besides tea and smoke breaks, the highlight of they day would be mail call – the moment when whoever was in charge waved a letter in the air that might bear your name. 

Think about the digital information landscape in 1983. I was already a relatively seasoned computer user, having learned a bit of Pascal and BASIC in high school. The IBM PC was two years old, and thanks to my schoolteacher mother, the Apple // had been a fixture in our household since the late 70s.  I’d been drawn to those machines, but as a kid I viewed them as tools, not harbingers of a new age.  No one used email, the Mac was still one year from launch, and it’d be ten years before the world wide web winked into existence. 1983 was, in short, the very last year of my pre-digital life. 

The world moved differently back then. Information pooled in slow moving eddies, and society built its institutions and its expectations around that fact. You registered for university classes in person the week before classes began, making your choices from those printed booklets that had been sent to you in the mail. If you were forgetful or out of the country, you picked one up at the student services office once you got to school.  So when I received a letter from a friend asking me what classes I’d be taking when I joined him at Berkeley at summer’s end, it didn’t concern me much. I’d make those choices when I got back. I no idea what my major would be – that decision was two years away, at least.

I returned to my native LA two days before classes started, and drove up to Berkeley the day before. And that’s about the time I realized I was well and truly f*cked – I’d missed registration week. All my friends had their classes already – and Berkeley being a chronically underfunded public university, nearly all those classes were already full. Now I was a bit panicked – I had a Navy scholarship, University-approved housing, and a life to start. But enjoying any of it turned exclusively on being a registered student. To do that, I had to enroll in at least 12 units of classes that accepted incoming Freshmen. All of the obvious choices – introductory economics, anthropology, history, etc. – were already full. I had to go deeper into the back catalog if I was going to register at all. 

In short, I had an information problem on my hands. Of the hundreds of classes offered at Berkeley in the Fall of 1983, I had to find at least three or four that would have me. Ideally, they’d also be classes I actually wanted to take. While I did allow myself a temporary moment of panic, it turned out that solving my problem took all of about thirty minutes. I walked down to student services, found a copy of the course booklet, and began to dig through the more obscure course listings. The woman at the counter had a computer at her desk, and every so often I’d find a class that sounded decent. I’d ask her if there were any slots open, she’d peck at her keyboard and bring up a response. I ended up taking two upper-level literature courses – one on Brecht, the other on modern Russian authors. I also picked up a two-unit astronomy seminar and a Spanish 3 section – I had placed out of two years of Spanish, so I didn’t have to compete with all the incoming Freshmen looking to check their language requirement box.  All told, I had 13 units of college coursework, no muss, no fuss. Time to smoke a joint and play some frisbee. 

That’s how it used to be. But four decades later, my youngest daughter Beatrix faced a similar set of decisions. It was December of last year, and Bea had completed her first semester at university. Like nearly all incoming Freshmen, Bea had already declared a major, and her first semester consisted mostly of required coursework. She had registered online, well in advance of showing up on campus.  All communications were handled through email, and while my wife and I do our best to not hover, I think it’s fair to say we weren’t shy with our newly minted university parent logins. 

But Bea’s second semester presented a unique information challenge – electives. With the Spring registration deadline looming, Bea had a chance to sample classes outside her chosen major (kids choosing majors before even getting on campus strikes me as crazy, but that’s another post). I’d told her about my experiences with Brecht, Gogol and Turgenev, and suggested she peruse the course booklet to see if anything caught her eye. 

But of course, there’s no such thing as a course booklet anymore. Everything is done online. And online, nearly all the value of a paper artifact is lost. You can no longer scan  hundreds of class listings in seconds simply by turning pages in succession. Hundreds of years of information design is lost. Instead, students are expected to navigate a series of search queries so convoluted and non-intuitive, most of Bea’s friends counseled her to ignore it. My daughter tried to use the school’s interface but gave up after a few minutes. I logged in using her credentials and, determined to help my daughter escape the straightjacket of her pre-determined major, spent hours searching through the thousands of classes on offer. The process is so confusing, the university has posted a YouTube tutorial that walks you through how to use the search tool. The whole experience was exhausting, depressing, and revelatory.

I came away realizing that poor information design has strangled the serendipity of finding interesting classes a student might otherwise enjoy – classes that might take a student into an entirely different and more fulfilling field. After all, what 18 year old really knows what they want to be when they grow up? But the convenience of online registration coupled with the failure of online information design means colleges have inadvertently created an architectural barrier to academic experimentation. And I see it in every college classroom in which I’ve taught – legions of students checking boxes and failing to experience the often hidden bounties of a university education. For many, the academic course load is simply something to get through, not a world to be explored.

OK, I hear some of you grumbling about first world problems, and I accept that. But there’s something deeper in this example – as we’ve adapted to a life lived extremely online, we’ve often made millions of tiny, unconscious choices that, taken together, can steer our futures in ways that prevent a flourishing society. I’m not arguing to bring back the published course booklet, necessarily, but I am advocating that we consider what we lose when we adopt new information architectures driven primarily by convenience over serendipity or experimentation. Once you look at the world with this lens, it’s hard not to see its effect everywhere – in our media consumption, for example, where we’ve outsourced our understanding of the world to an information architecture driven by algorithms tuned for engagement over comprehension.  As we enter a new age of artificial intelligence, where information design is buried in hidden “weights” that pre-determine outcomes, we’d do well to consider what we’re losing as we forge ahead. 

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6 thoughts on “Digital Is Killing Serendipity”

  1. IBM selectric renting at $5/ hour was my first business at Columbia.
    It took me all 4 years to speed browse the XXX drawers of the 8mil card catalog….lol

  2. Hi John! Thank you for the trip down college memory lane and conjuring the course booklet experience. I remember being both fascinated and overwhelmed by it but totally agree with your viewpoint about the serendipity of that process and the value that brings to how we consume information today.

  3. I definitely agree that technology has reached a point where things that used to be minor inconveniences have now become inconveniently convenient, to make my point with such an oxymoron.

    I believe that it’s some of these minor inconveniences that provide an underlying yet unnoticed sense of purpose that move us through our days. Getting groceries on a weekend day used to require us to get out of bed, get dressed, get in the car, peruse the aisles of the grocery store, greet the cashier, check out, drive back home, carry the groceries into the house and sort them into the refrigerator and pantry. Now, all it takes is to get onto the Whole Foods delivery website through and the groceries show up on our doorstep.

    I think that the end result of some of these advancements in technology is that some people may now have too much time on their hands. For those who are productive, these advancements are a Godsend, but for those who lack a core sense of purpose, such advancements only add to their awareness that they lack a purpose.

    I’m curious about your answer to this problem. Should there be technology-free zones within society, just as their are residential and commercial zones, or to make the analogy crystal clear, no smoking areas?

    As I reflected on this article, I began to sense a hint of neo-Luddism, yet I’m now thinking this piece expresses the idea that technology should be embraced only in certain sectors of society, and in others it shouldn’t be embraced.

  4. Speaking as someone who makes a living on such things, I could not agree with you more.

    The most recent example is the early launch of Threads, Meta’s Twitter/X clone/competitor, where it is very hard to find people to follow unless you know their names, but bad user interfaces and experiential design is the norm rather than the exception.

    What’s often perplexing to me is how there just isn’t a reason for this to be so, especially in the case of a sprawling organization like a university. They have, at minimum, hundreds of students with the ability to come up with designs for how to make their websites more usable, and professors that can vet those ideas, pick the best of them and build out something very nice.

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