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Life is a Browsing Experience

May 8, 2010

Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is a dumb question. Like most silly binaries about whether the web is “good” or “bad” blah blah children blah civilization, it’s just not very productive. Really it’s rather reductive. Bypassing all the moral hullaboo and handwaving, it’s still always worthwhile to re-examine the underlying assumptions behind the browsing experience. Those domains that the web has already come to dominate and those that it will dominate are unified, it seems, by a common principle. Television, shopping, social networking, news, entertainment, music, dating, punditry, gossip, pictures of cats and babies and babies with cats and other silly jokes — all are forms of consumption. They work so well in the browser precisely because the browser is a very good tool for the performing the activity that lies at the heart of consumption — browsing. The browsing experience is, in many ways, a definitively consumptive experience, oriented towards flitting to and fro, skimming, occassionally bookmarking something interesting and then moving ever forwards. This suggests there’s not much new about the browser as mass consumption has been with us for hundreds of years now. There’s also not much surprising about its popularity. For many, a good chunk of life is a browsing experience. And so it follows that more and more of life will be lived in the browser.

But people will never dance in their browser. They won’t sing or play soccer in their browser. There’s a large class of activities that don’t “fit” inside a browser. Gaming, long form writing, long form reading, prayer, debate, research, kissing, sports and long walks through the forest in the afternoon. All of these are essentially productive activities that are less about breadth and much more about depth. They are creative activities where the focus is not to search for the “answer”, not to find the golden coin. And for all of them the browser often serves up a poor experience. The failure of the browser in these domains is made explicit by the rapidly rising popularity of specialized hardware — netbooks, e-book readers, tablets — and specialized applications. Not all activities can be subsumed in the browsing experience. There will always be strong demand for other tools, specialized, immersive tools that can facilitate production in a way that the browser simply can’t. The web isn’t going to change this. Google isn’t going to change this. Google, like most technology, will provide solutions to all those problems except the ones that matter most.

That’s a good thing.

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