The word “serendipity” was famously coined by the 18th-century aesthete Horace Walpole, who based it on an Eastern tale of three princes with a knack for “making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Serendipity is a prized quality in Internet culture—and yet in stressing accidents over sagacity, we abuse the term. The princes in Walpole’s old tale describe a missing camel sight-unseen with such alacrity that they are accused of having stolen it; in their defense, they unravel the clues they used in reconstructing the absent animal, telling a story scavenged from the traces it has left. “Serendipity” demands the management of diverse kinds of tacit knowledge—a kind of networked wisdom, a hunter’s sagacity, a knack for combining clues.
In this sense, the science historian James Burke is the Carl Sagan of Serendip. Beginning in the late seventies, the Connections series he presented on the BBC and on American public television unraveled technology’s history as the interwoven record of sagacious discovery. Unlike mystical approaches to the history of technology, Connections didn’t approach its subject as the revelation of some plan or purpose or fate; Burke didn’t stoop to theorizing, but knit together, clue by clue, the story our inventive, tool-making ancestors left scattered through time. The story he tells does express a theory, however: that technology is the key in which serendipity expresses its role in human experience.Brainpickings]