Wondrously whimsical: the unsought finding

What was your thesis about?

I don’t really get that question. People know I did my master at the Institute of Informatics, faculty of mathematics and natural sciences.

Yes, I did really study..
Yes, I did really study..

To most people, that is enough to get their eyes to glaze over. “Computerstuff”, “hard science”, “mathematics” are words connected to that. Zeros and ones. Onion-shaped Asbergers-kids with coke bottles longing for the singularity. Distracted professors and mad scientists. Lecture halls with intimidatingly smart people. And all those things are – with reason, for many – incompatible with me. So one thing is that they do not connect to informatics, another is that they don’t connect me to it either. Here is then the problem: when I do try to explain, many struggle not only with that contradiction, but also that what I seem to be saying does not sound like informatics. Because, informatics, faculty of mathematics etc, etc. So. Four elements with endless potential for confusion, there, then.

What was my thesis about?

what people think when you say "faculty of mathematics and natural sciences"
what people think when you say “faculty of mathematics and natural sciences”

I pretty much wrote three and a half thesises (thesi?). One theoretical one on the relation, conflict, and intermingledness of art, design, and science. One on visualisations, their history, meaning, uses, misuses, inner workings, dangers, and power. Half on metaphors in physical and digital space; on skeumorphics, visual metaphors. And finally, the one I submitted: on design for serendipity.

“Design for serendipity, what nonsense is that?” I hear you cry.

See yourself in a second-hand bookshop. It is chaotic. Boxes, shelves and tables. Discount bins. If you are looking for something particular, you might find an employee, and this person might simply say: “maybe, check out that section over there”. Or you might have just gone in to get out of the rain. Anyway. In this messy environment, the chances of bumping into something new, something you did not even know you were interested in, is great. Not in the sense that it is entirely by chance or accident, or that you just find something interesting. Serendipity is about connecting unrelated things together, and with some prior knowledge you have, combined with this new book in your hand, widens your world somehow. You find something you did not even know you valued.

The unsought finding.

…you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.

– Rebecca Solnit

Part of my bookshelf. You could get lost.

We can all get sentimental about second hand-bookshops dying, libraries robotisising requests and retrievals. Collections as single entities vanishing. Or we can look at … is it possible, to transfer some of that essence of the second-hand bookshop experience to the digital world? Can we make something digital that is wondrously whimsical and exquisitely inefficient? That, in essence, was what my thesis was about. How on earth did I examine this? That might be a story for another day. But ponder this, as you surf the web. Its structures are usually about drilling down, about fact-retrieval. What if we could create opportunities for chance? Of finding valuable things you would never think to look for? It is actually a fairly novel thought. And my research, believe it or not, are, in the context of informatics, breaking new ground.

I will produce a computer virus and introduce it into my own desktop, so that when my sons put in their key word – say, “salamander” – the screen will erupt in a brilliant but random array of maps and illustrations and text that will divert them from their task. is I will do so that they may know the sheer joy of finding what they have not sought. I might even wish for this virus to spread from computer to computer. And I would name this virus for that which ought not to be lost –


– Ted Gup

  1. Solnit, R., “A Field Guide To Getting Lost”, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, UK, 2006
  2. Gup, T., “The end of serendipity”, in: The chronicle of higher education, 44/13, 1997

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