Sunday, March 04, 2012


As I was driving the long way to work one day, I found myself noticing places where traffic seemed to flow to, but where I had never ventured. I wondered and still wonder where those roads go.

It then occurred to me that 21st century technology has taken something away from us--we are no longer "browsers". I can remember the days when all I had in the car was a Hagstrom road map, and I would just drive around investigating various places. If I was lost, I could just turn to my map. I learned a lot about the state that I live in from doing this. Similarly, within a library or bookstore, I like to poke around and see what's available under a particular topic. There's no particular idea or destination, we're "just looking", and in that browse without a purpose, we sometimes achieve something called "serendipity". We discover places and things that we may not have if we were trying to get to a definite place, or were looking for a specific item.

Of course, one can still benefit from serendipity while browsing, even if someone has a purpose in mind. While looking for one particular book, we may find it and notice others nearby that also look good. Sometimes we find something better. I'm amazed at how many people don't realize that libraries are arranged by subject. The numbers assigned by the library and neatly typed on a spine label all refer to a specific subject. Public library users are better browsers than academic library users. But academic library users usually are on a mission, researching a specific topic, finding materials for a paper. They could still benefit from browsing.

But most people don't browse anymore. They get from point A to point B via GPS. Newsbiscuit (a UK satire paper) had an article: "32% rely on smartphone to cross a road." It's a joke article, but like all satire, there's a grain of truth there. One still finds browsing in libraries and bookstores, but many have abandoned such searches in favor of online resources or e-books. The trend is towards going to a specific place, and looking for a specific thing. There must be an "end point".

I suspect that a lot of this may be due to information overload. I remember the term "information superhighway" that was big in the 1990s, and though the Internet was hardly all that back then, it certainly is more than that now. It's impossible to keep up, impossible to weed through vast amounts of information. So, we hide in the few RSS feeds that we like to read, and when searching elsewhere we don't poke around beyond the second page of a Google search or an Ebsco database search. We grab the first thing that looks good.

I had a reading with psychic Jane Doherty the other day. We were talking about publishing, and she told me she'd been disheartened to learn from an agent that most people don't read past the first three chapters of a book. In the past, one could publish a work based on merit and expertise. Today, it's all "bottom line", whether or not the author already has a following that will buy the book, and how attractive the cover is to readers. What's on the actual pages means very little. I suspect that this is also part of the fallout from the great information glut.

Years ago in the MLS program I was in, we had a course called "Knowledge Representation for Information Retrieval". (It was as exciting as it sounds.) One concept I recall clearly from that class was the idea of "appropriateness of interface". Put simply, certain interfaces are better for certain tasks. Electronic interfaces are better when you are looking for specific information, and trying to track down a certain item--for instance, a doctor searching a diagnostic manual for a particular illness or symptom. Book interfaces are better for content that is actually to be "read" and not merely "referenced". Of course, this particular conception of appropriateness existed at a time before eReaders, which have become more ubiquitous since then. But even still--most eReaders have features that let you search within the text to find a specific thing. I'm not denying the usefulness of this, but it's not browsing, or the same kind of browsing.

Library catalogs have shifted focus as well. The default search used to be Browse--by author, title, or subject. For at least the last 15 years, the default search is general keyword, which one might argue gives more results than browse, but it also requires you to look through more garbage. (Refer back to the idea that no one likes to look through more than 2 pages of results.) One might argue that catalog "browse" was hardly browsing at all, because you had to know a specific author, title, or pre-determined subject. But one CAN start with a keyword search and use modern browse to do some real catalog browsing. The trouble is that no one really knows how to do that anymore (including many librarians), and it's no longer taught in library education, or at least not emphasized.

Bookstores might be one of the few browsing places left, but these are getting more scarce. When I sit in a Barnes & Noble with a coffee, I watch people who come in to the store. While assuredly there are some browsers, for the most part I see people charge straight up to the information desk and ask for a specific thing. I see more and more inquiries about eReaders.

None of this is "bad"--in a culture where we are always pressed for time, we are always looking for the most efficient ways to do things. But I do think there is a loss in being so pressed for time, and I wonder why we are so pressed for time. Often times we are just in a hurry to go nowhere, if we really think about it. When life runs along such straight lines, with a destination always in mind, one falls into the cliched trap of "not seeing the forest for the trees". A fear of information overload makes us avoid looking at the bigger picture. And high gas prices probably keep us from doing more meandering in our cars.

The world has changed, maybe for the better, maybe not, but I do wonder what will happen to our lives if we lose the inclination to "browse" entirely. It seems to me that this denies us the experience of everything life has to offer. I can't help but feel that we are becoming overly "rationalized", to the point that everything we do must be functional somehow, and that makes us machines, not humans.