Mechanical Dances

Browsing culture

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One of the criticisms one hears over and over about the digitization of the library is that it will eliminate the element of serendipity. We happen upon a book in the stacks when we are looking for another, and a new world opens up to us.. This supposedly can’t happen when we search and read electronically. Yet one wonders whether these critics have ever gone online to look for anything. Platforms for accessing the web are called browsers for good reason. We browse all the time, and every time we use Google, we are presented with dozens, hundreds, thousands of sites by bear only a verbal resemblance to what we are looking for. Millions of visitors to YouTube may go for a specific video, but end up following the links provided to watch ten more. The same applies specifically to digital libraries and databases, such as the ACM and IEEE for computer science. If you search for one topic or author, you get many hits that may not be author or topic you expected. And if you are looking to buy a book on Amazon, you will be offered other books that other customers (with possibly very different purposes) have also looked at in connection with this book.

Digital culture is a browsing culture; for better or worse, serendipity is a fundamental feature.

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