From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 22, 1996: Search vs. Browse - A Way of Thinking

The August, 1996 edition of Wired Magazine (a must read for the on-line crowd, or at least have a copy sticking out of your briefcase when wandering around important places) carried the following letter to the editor in response to a column by Nicholas Negroponte, the high priest of digitality:

Caught Browsing, Again

Perhaps Nicholas Negroponte should do more window shopping. I'll welcome agents that do much of my searching for me. But searching is not browsing. Searching implies a known and defined goal.
I am an inveterate browser: libraries, magazine racks, and, thankfully, the Net. Searchers may achieve set goals, but browsers enjoy unanticipated delights. Haphazard browsing has led me to my wife, my career, my houseboat, and my hobbies. Some of the perspectives in Negroponte's insightful Being Digital have found their way into my economics lectures. Yet I would never have found the book through any imaginable search routine; it was a case of bookstore browsing, a bit of thumbing through a few chapters in spite of the George Gilder recommendations on the dust jacket, and a touch of serendipity. Browsing can be a most productive use of time.

Kit Sims Taylor

In a university setting we strive to be productive, or at least to give the impression that we're using our time in a productive manner, and browsing isn't one of the activities that normally gets classified as productive work. But few of us can really claim that we know what we're looking for. When I look something up in an encyclopaedia (and yes, I actually do that sort of thing every so often, even with an entire world of on-line information at my fingertips it's still quite often a much more effective way of finding basic information) I try and stop a few pages before the page with the material I'm looking for, and then skim/read through those pages until I get to the one I want.

Doing that gives me a random means of finding information that I know nothing about, that I'm not looking for, and perhaps don't even know exists. And, of course, I invariably find something that's of interest. Basically, it's a form of browsing, and if I was punching a clock it wouldn't be considered time-efficient or productive.

Either browsing is going to be accepted as a valid way of using our time, or chronic browsers are going to pushed out of the work force. Already reports have it that employers are disturbed that their workers are "wasting" their time surfing the World Wide Web instead of getting their work done, though part of their work entails conducting searches on the web. (And yes, I've got a clipping on that - it says that 62% of managers in business are convinced that their workers waste company time on the internet, and probably a comic as well, filed away somewhere, but true to form, I can't seem to remember where I filed them.) How do employers determine until what point a search is work-related and at what point it becomes a corporate waste of time? How do they know that what seems like a waste of time today isn't going to be valuable tomorrow?

The university is also, on paper at least, worried about this situation. When students at TAU open their zoot connection they're informed that any student caught using his/her account for games, gifs and the like will have his/her account privileges revoked. But beyond the obvious problem of who's going to devote time to checking what students have on their accounts, a much more serious problem lurks: only through playing around with these "new" communications technologies can we discover what we can do with them. And that's why browsing, and playing around, are actually the most productive ways to spend our time.  

And by the way, the original Negroponte article is definitely worth reading.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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