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Gavin MacFadyen: Joy of accidental discovery is rapidly being lost

Like most people, the computer is an essential part of my daily life. It is long past the time when having one was a luxury, a plaything or a means to be more efficient.

Undeniably, we as individuals and a society have gained tremendously because of technology. But I cannot help feel that we have also lost a great deal. I feel that the cost has been the gradual end of what I call “accidental discovery.”

There is nothing complex or difficult about the concept. Put simply, it means the joy of finding something that one was not looking for at all instead of being instantly conveyed to that which we were.

Entering a search term into Google, Bing or Yahoo will bring up hundreds or thousands of relevant hits. Usually, we quickly locate the information needed.

Before computers we had encyclopedias. It was a point of pride for parents to have a full set in their home – displayed on a bookshelf within easy reach of curious and growing children. A world of information – or so we thought then – was at their fingertips.

I grew up in such a home and can still remember spending long winter weekend afternoons as a child randomly pulling a volume off the shelf and opening it. Thumbing through the pages, I would inevitably stop at something that interested me – probably the initial spark of interest came from a photograph.

It didn’t matter whether it was aardvarks or zebras, hot air balloons or silkworms, the joy and worth of the exercise was that, like an explorer, I had happened upon something unexpected, something unknown. My world, closely followed by my dreams, became larger in the process – larger because of the process.

Libraries may be one of the last bastions where this type of random finding can occur. In libraries, a seemingly infinite number of possibilities are still waiting shelf upon shelf and row upon row. As the brick and mortar bookstores disappear, libraries are like a repository for a way of learning that is also vanishing.

I can’t count the number of times I have been searching through the stacks for a desired book when I happened upon something unexpected that ended up being far more fascinating than what I was looking for in the first place.

But even the largest libraries are adapting to market trends and they are becoming media centers and Wi-Fi hotspots. Books are often downloaded electronically onto portable reading devices. It will be a sad day indeed when the glowing screens replace the musty smell of well-thumbed pages.

Sites like eBay have also taken much of the fun out of a quest for a rare or unusual item. Want an autograph of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley? How about a Joe DiMaggio signed baseball or that one missing Hummel figurine?

In the past, part of the fun of acquiring something was the search itself – and not one conducted by tapping on a keyboard. It involved going to flea markets and garage sales; it meant driving on back roads through the countryside to out-of-the-way places offering up hidden and undiscovered knickknacks and memorabilia.

Looking back, we think we had less then. Now that we enjoy the ease of immediate acquisition, perhaps we are starting to realize that we really had more. Just as in the search for information, the process might have been longer and the destination unsure. But, to me, the possibility of accidental discovery along the way made the journey infinitely more rewarding.