In Defense of Browsing: Digital Humanities and the Upshot of Screwing Around

Rochelle Terman
January 26, 2012
Image of a toddler touching a computer screen.

A study from the Pew Internet and Life Project on Friday reported that 53% of those 18-29 years old go online "for no particular reason except to have fun or to pass the time." Furthermore, the study highlighted a significant generation gap. Just 12% of those 65 or older said they go online for no particular reason.

The randomness that guides the activity of browsing is not confined to the web; it also seems to be shaping digital humanities. In a recent column Stanley Fish portrays browsing as the dominant method (or anti-method) in digital humanities: randomly traversing huge amounts of data with the hope of stumbling upon some surprising statistical pattern of sameness or difference undetectable by the eye of the human reader. In contrast to the “conventional” humanities project in which the scholar approaches a close reading of a text with some hypothesis in mind, the computer-aided process of “text mining” is neither interpretively directed nor theoretically guided.

The process might look something like this: Let’s see how many time the word "orange" is used versus "clementine" in this 10-million-book corpus. If a significant pattern arises, a hypothesis follows. In other words, the practice is dictated by the tool; millions of texts are analyzed together in a panoramic-like practice of “distant reading.”

It should be clear by now that if digital humanities are coterminous with this “text-mining” or “distance reading” orgy of randomness and technological fetishism, then neither Stanley Fish nor many other established humanists look upon it as a particularly positive development in their discipline. Fish concludes, “whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice… a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play."

But the phrase “mere play” begs the question. There exists a significant group of people for whom play is very serious indeed, namely experts in child development and psychology who contribute to the growing consensus that “idle, creative, unstructured free play… is a central part of neurological growth and development.”

Play has also enjoyed a value boost in the world of adults in recent decades, and humanist scholars in particular have touted its productive potential. From Jacques Derrida’s “free Play” and Herald Bloom’s “productive misreading, to Barthe’s discussion of “the pleasure of the text”, play is not just a pathway for distraction and procrastination; it is vital for creativity and critique. 

Play can take a variety of productive forms, but perhaps the most important – at least for current debate around digital humanities - is the play involved in the process of “screwing around”. Stephen Ramsey describes this using a library analogy: One can enter a library in order to conduct a specific search about a particular topic. Alternatively, one can go into a library and “wander around in a state of insouciant boredom”. This is called browsing, and it’s a completely different activity. Unlike searching, when I am browsing I don’t know what’s here, and I don’t know what I’m looking for.

So perhaps the appropriate dichotomy in the debate over digital humanities is not between close reading and far reading, or interpretation and text-mining, but rather between searching and browsing. Searching is approaching the text “armed with a hypothesis”. Browsing uses “a machine that is ready to recognize the text in a thousand different ways instantly”. As Fish puts it:

Each reorganization (sometimes called a “deformation”) creates a new text that can be reorganized in turn and each new text raises new questions that can be pursued to the point where still newer questions emerge. The point is not to get to a place you had in mind and then stop; the point is to keep on going, as, aided by the data-generating machine, you notice this and then notice that which suggests something else and so an, ad infinitum.

Are we ready, Ramsey asks, “to accept surfing and stumbling — screwing around, broadly understood — as a research methodology?”

Criticisms of the browsing method are easy to find. For instance, some denounce this approach by arguing that important treasures cannot be found without a map of sorts; randomness will lead to bunk. But this seems fundamentally counterintuitive to anybody who has practiced the art of browsing on the Web, or even in a book or record store. I dare say I have discovered many of my favorite musical artists, my most useful skills, and my most passionate interests in the course of “screwing around”. I have also consumed a wealth of fascinating, if not entirely “practical” knowledge; this afternoon included the wondrous features of the cuttlefish. The beauty of “the accidental finding” is something that humanist scholars should embrace as they would the value of interdisciplinarity, the participant observation, and the openness that so often results in creative thinking. 

Others argue that the browsing – and particularly web browsing – is mired by anarchical content structures that prevent the development of community or cumulative knowledge. This criticism, however, seem to ignore the remarkable order that exists within the so-called anarchy of the web and digital technologies.

Yes, “screwing around” on the internet does not follow as narrow a guide as peer-reviewed journal or MLA bibliography, but chaos it is not. Indeed there is a sophisticated and complex order to web interactions that produce trends, vocabularies, and communities, even though these may be unpredictable. It is worth remembering that today, the dominant format of the Web is not a random assortment of millions of static “Pages” but a system of aggregate, browse-amenable forums: Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube, and others. As Ramsey puts it: “These sites are at once the product of screwing around and the social network that invariably results when people screw with each other.”

Finally, the most pervasive criticism does not concern the form of textual interaction that browsing represents but the “texts” themselves that browsing tends to encounter and encourage. Columnist Mitch Albom, in a somewhat curmudgeonly Sunday column reacting to the PEW poll, writes that the kind of aimless activity that young people perform when online has led to the proliferation of mindless content: "When you're not looking for anything special, the un-special will do just fine," he writes. But I wonder exactly what content Ablom is referring to here: is it the straw-men of banal haranguing or scatological humor that has populated every media form since stone carvings? Or is the specifically internet-esque system of content creation, interactions and iterations – think the recent “Shit Girls Say” video and its derivatives, or the pepper spray meme – that seem particularly “mindless” to Ablom? Is “mindless” without thought or consideration, or is simply without restraint?

Indeed, it is difficult as a young person to read these now-cliché denouncements of web browsing without feeling put down or alienated at the thinly veiled ageism that underlies such critiques. Take these lines for instance:

I have long since believed that going into cyberspace is a mission young people take not to actually land on a planet, but to cruise around the stars until the ship runs out of gas.

They could, of course, discover a previously-unknown galaxy of wonder that could change our world forever.

Unfortunately, the rise of the semantic and integrated web may signal the decline of browsing as we know it. A vital part of “screwing around” is the very possibility of stumbling upon a piece of content that is outside one’s informational “normal”. That is, a crucial element of web browsing is the potential for exposure to weird content -- that is, content you did not search for, content you could not have imagined existed, content that is perhaps five or six degrees of “link” separation away from a first-order facebook or googlereader browse. But with the rise of user-specific content display – for instance Google’s new plan to track users across services - we may soon find ourselves surrounded by the ordinary. Content will now be tailored to us (or more specifically who the machine thinks we are) eliminating the random potential that has made the web scary, and amazing.

Scholars such as Stanley Fish would do well to appreciate how much browsing, randomness, and “screwing around” has benefited his own work and that of others. After all, how did I stumble upon his column – which then became inspiration for this blog post? Well, I was screwing around on the internet.