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Walk past a "Heavy Plant" warning and wonder vaguely if the trees thought it was for them; if whoever put it up had enough imag...

Friday, January 04, 2008

On Browsing: Herbivorous consumption

Browsing is an activity where concentration and attention span as well as a deeper qualitative appreciation are hostile to the activity itself. It also means that people are more sensitive to negative forces, browsing has both push and pull forces and the push is instant and final and the pull is creeping and fickle.

"I'm a selective consumer me."

It's probably a bit unseemly to quote yourself but when I wrote this I started thinking more about browsing as it seems to be an increasingly important part of everyday experience.

Dictionary definitions aren't much good when you are looking to describe and understand something as prevalent and widely applied as the concept of browsing. At best you will be left with an awkwardly narrow definition and at worst discover that the term you are looking up has several different uses that vary only slightly in a semantic sense but when used as a basis for thinking about the thing it describes in a real world context produce a multitude of obfuscating subtleties (try saying that with a mouthful of jelly!). The definition I have come up with is:

Browsing is the act of continual selection and sampling dictating what will be consumed and what will be discarded.

This feels like a capital economic description but is derived from natural history's description of the eating habits of herbivores and I've pinched this as a metaphor for thinking about the process. The very fact that to me this sounds like something that might come up in a marketing seminar points to what is important about browsing; it is a choice mechanism based on sampling. The actual item or experience to be consumed must be part consumed or experienced in the act of making a choice. Choice only occurs when there is more than one option to consume and browsing is how we appear to cope with an enormous variety of choice offered: too many options actually inhibit a quick and clear decision, sampling and acceptance or rejecion have become the norm. We have been turned into herbivorous consumers by the overwhelming quantity of options available.

Browsing also seems to be an effective means of avoiding a definitive choice. With a little of this and a little of that you can browse all day without settling on a single option. It could lead to overconsumption, particularly if you continue with the idea that you are looking for a single perfect thing or simply get lost in the habit of sampling and moving on. Apathy and inertia are an unhealthy combinaton.

The act of browsing seems to have become an activity in itself; window shopping, channel surfing and web browsing for fun. What becomes of a choice mechanism when the final objective is removed? The activity seems a kind of aimless meandering, a feckless self absorption and commitmentless waste of time. Without an aim continuous browsing will probably lead down roads marked out by the most basic and instinctual drives, the lowest common denominator. I'm wondering if this is why there is so much sex on the internet - a medium where you have to open a 'browser' just to be able to access most of the content.

There is another name for herbivores in natural history: prey species. It is only by herding together in vast numbers and/or reaching a really enormous size that they manage not to be devoured!

More thought needed.