#764: Atom Orbitals and the Charm of Being Lost

March 15th, 2017

I was told the TV was mine, that the long day earned me a couch and control of the remote.

I looked at the couch and blanket and said “I’m going to watch a TED Talk about atoms.”

And within three minutes, I was.

We live in a universe of absolute specificity. Any wild hair of an idea you have for entertainment, reading, videos or pornography can be in front of you in the time it takes to type the words and hit “search.”

In some ways, it’s good. I’m working on a research project right now. I found an allusion in a book from 2002 to a drunken brawl in an election in 1799 and, within a few minutes, found archive.org versions of the 1916 biography of John Marshall the 2002 book was citing and the 1884 publication the 1916 book cited of the posthumous memoirs of the guy who in his youth knew two of the old guys who saw the 1799 brawl in the first place.

Just a few years ago, that would have taken weeks or months to find. It would have taken trips to library after library and antiquarian bookstore after antiquarian bookstore in city after city to track down one obscure publication from 1916 just to spot a footnote directing me to do the whole process again to find the 1884 memoirs.

I did it in seconds, with Facebook open in another tab.

A lovely moment, but only possible through the combo of tech and chaos. I tracked down the source of the 1799 election brawl through technology. I learned the brawl existed by leafing through a random book plucked from the shelves at the Sulzer Regional Library.

This isn’t about FAKE NEWS or targeting algorithms or Dems only reading stories on Demon Trump whilst the GOPers learn the tale of St. Donald the Yuge. We all know today how dangerous it is to have a society find only what it wants, so this isn’t another screed on that.

This is about how charming it is to be lost.

If you put me in the middle of a foreign city with a cellphone, I could located the nearest police station, U.S. consulate, airport, bus map and foreign phrasebook that would teach me to say “Hello, reputable cabbie. Please get me to this five-Yelp-star-rated hotel and this exact café that a review tells me is the absolute most charming and authentic thing ever.”

Or I could wander, explore. Stumble across a little café that serves a tea I’ll never taste again or get ripped off by a cabbie on the way to a restaurant that will serve a food that I hate but will never forget the flavor of.

It might be confusing that the first option offers me the best of the world and the second is my preference. Why wouldn’t I prefer that bus map and those Yelp reviews? Why wouldn’t I want to tailor my experience to be exactly what I want?

Because these technologies and this specificity they allows in restaurants, original source documents and TED Talks on a particular particle can only give us the best of what we already know exists. Only randomness, chaos and that ineffable world that gives us things we did not search for can show us something new.

I don’t know how to find this vital chaos online. I don’t know a site that, instead of “search,” has a button that says “surprise me.”

No, the chaos and randomness of an in-person life aren’t perfect. Sometimes we’re astounded, sometimes we’re left wanting. But to me, occasional lousy tea, bad hotels and boring movies are forgivable side products of the only option left that lets us play.

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