After Browsing, More Search


In other words, in the old days, if you wanted to do something—navigate to the restaurant where you’ve got a dinner reservation—you might open a web browser and search for its address. But in the post-search world of context—in which our devices know so much about us that they can guess our intentions—your phone is already displaying a route to that restaurant, as well as traffic conditions, and how long it will take you to get there, the moment you pull your phone out of your pocket. -Christoper Mims, This is What Comes After Search

This sounds pretty good. Not having to search hard is nice, but there’s a large gap between the “old days” and having less-than-relevant suggestions tossed your way and then having to re-search to overcome technology’s autocorrect of your taste in food. It’ll run really well off of information it has, and in cases of laziness or indecision, it might be helpful. But predictive technology based on your or other’s past behavior keeps us locked and repeating, and isn’t all this about “innovation”? To follow Thomas Mann’s classifications of human understanding, this is mistaking data and information for actual knowledge about a person.

It is, in fact, remarkably superficial, and even while it purports to be post-search, it is something else entirely: it is browsing. The reliance on light amounts of information and cultural/contextual shorthand is browsing at its finest. The phone browses your past and comes up with a few suggestions. The chief error in the above-imagined world is that it commits you to a decision based on a browse. This is especially problematic in today’s world:

According to the study, we’re still into “stuff” and the prospect of attaining it, but we’re too poor and tight to actually go through with it. (Those exorbitant student loans might be one reason why.) -Thomas Gorton, Fauxsumerism: Shopping for the Intern Generation

Because we can’t afford to commit. It costs too much effort, too much money, and too much gas. We enjoy browsing for things, picking them up, trying on a dozen, scanning the covers, looking at the menu in the window, and hearing a snippet. But unless we know, or someone else knows it’s for us for sure, it is an overreach. With more information, the app might tell you to just go to the grocery store and buy some bread. It still takes people to put pieces of information together in new and interesting ways to make something helpful, to build up from the initial context-building that is browsing and make it knowledge, or in some cases, art:


Artists featured in LotPW use vast landscapes of data to collect and transform digital information, visual and otherwise, into analog experience; every work in the collection is a printed expression of search engine pattern discovery. -Library of the Printed Web, About

The shift from digital to print makes concrete to shift from information to knowledge, to make random collections seem to speak, reifying it, if you will, to build up a collection to then be dispersed again, both digitally and in print. The collection of knowledge is our advantage over most machines, but also over each other:


Mr. Dutreil said that young designers lack the cultural knowledge that older brands have accrued over time. He argued that new brands are informed by a fragmented, this-and-that cultural experience. -Joe McCarthy, Emerging Brands Lack the Heritage Needed for Luxury Status

Knowledge and depth still matter. Disruption is fine and good to learn from, innovation keeps us relevant, but I’ll contend now til forever, the library, no matter what size or state, is part of a heritage luxury brand that combines the best of contextual browsing and search alongside the knowledge of its people and institutions to do one thing: pass it on.