Two Roads Diverge: Discovery vs. Search

Image via flickr.

A few decades ago, William Trogdon found himself at a crossroads – out of work and out of a marriage. Unsure of what the future held, he set out on what was to be his own personal discovery of America; a journey that would consume three months and some 13,000 miles. Trogden’s only criteria was to stick to two lane highways and small towns. Writing under the pseudonym William Least Half-Moon, he chronicles his travels in Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, a bit of a cult classic. Along the way, he encounters characters ranging from the born-again Christian teenager to a boat builder, a prostitute, a maple syrup farmer, a Hopi Native American medical student, and a host of others.

This past week, my wife and I were invited by friends to spend New Year’s weekend with them in Scottsdale, Arizona. We knew exactly where we were going, and when we wanted to be there, and had only to determine the airline with the best rates and schedule. In making the trek to Arizona, I focused on getting there as quickly and efficiently as possible: no detours, whether they be farmers, hitchhikers, or prostitutes.

My path was direct, like search, while the path of Blue Highways was meandering, like discovery – Charles “discovered” a lot of interesting places and people that he didn’t know he was looking for – but he sure was delighted when he found them. In my case, I knew exactly what I wanted, and was satisfied when I got my answer.

Said another way, Christopher Columbus was “searching” for a water route to India. Of course, he “discovered” America – perhaps not what he set out to do, but arguably a discovery that had far greater economic, social, and historical impact.

Putting this in Trapit’s perspective, when you need information, we like to think of it in two axes. The first is precision: I know what I want – a fact (when did Columbus “discover” America? What was the name of his flagship?) Or it may be driving directions to that new restaurant, or finding that replacement part for your vacuum cleaner.

The second axis is serendipity, the magic we experience when we find something that is really interesting, that didn’t know we were looking for–the Appalachian log cabin restorer that William Trogdon met, or the cocoa beans that Columbus brought back from the New World to the delight of European aristocrats. When it comes to information, a balance of these two axes is important: too much precision is simply boring, while unconstrained serendipity is chaos – a random collection of data without personal relevance.

The web has gotten too big not to be personalized; it is growing and changing much faster than your interests. Can search meet your needs? Sure, sometimes. Maybe for that vaccum cleaner part – if you can wade through the sites that have paid to make sure they have a chance to sell you a vacuum cleaner – or a toaster. But capturing the surprise and delight we remember from when the web was young. Exploring the unknown. That’s discovery.

Gary Griffiths
Trapit CEO and Co-founder

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