Oct 3, 2023
WN: The question leaps out: Who is browsing whom?
In the beginning, the browser was an herbivore who ate buds, shoots, and twigs off of trees and bushes. While grazers faced down to munch on grasses, browsers kept their heads up. They reached and craned, looking outward as they searched for sustenance.
It remembers your history until you ask it to forget. Beneath the browser’s surface—which has shaped both the way the internet appears to us and the way we look at it—there is a rich subterrane of information about how we browse and, with it, who we are.
The word took on a more figurative sense in the 19th century. As Europe industrialized, covered shopping arcades flourished across the continent. Here, sheltered from the elements, walking the promenades and taking in the sights became an upper-class form of entertainment and pleasure-seeking—particularly for women, for whom it provided a socially acceptable excuse to leave the house and move freely in public. A browser was someone who meandered through the world of ideas or goods, taking up whatever struck their fancy. Where the grazer was steadfast in their pursuit—they knew what they wanted—browsing implied a certain flippancy, a lack of seriousness or commitment.
Browsing came about as a result of changing material conditions, but it was also a natural extension of a philosophy of curious leisure and an aesthetic of exploratory idyll popularized in the 1800s. The flâneur—an urban wanderer and watcher, at once detached from and attuned to the newly industrialized environment—sprang from the literary imagination of the era. Baudelaire describes the flâneur as a “passionate spectator” and speaks of the experience of wanting to “be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”
Whether great numbers of idle semi-artists were really roaming the streets of Paris and taking respite in their alienation is debatable, but there certainly existed a growing number of places in which “the world” was on display. Department stores were a novelty that cropped up more or less simultaneously in Europe and North America during this time. These stores turned patrons into both the players and audience in a theater of commercial and cultural comings and goings. New retail environments created novel blends of public and private space, inviting citizens to become both consumers and bystanders.
Obviously, amenities and displays were intended to usher in buyers, but those who preferred to look on, roam, and simply show up, seeing and being seen, were also welcomed. Perusal was one of the luxuries on offer. To be a browser was arguably the defining pastime of the emergent middle class. Blending curiosity, aspiration, consumption, and leisure, browsing offered a new way of looking that was particular to the burgeoning of modernity. Here, clinging to the mere surface of things and staying uncommitted to any course of action meant withholding or deferring a purchase—refusing to spend. In this way, the browser exerts a right to “shop”—that is to say, to be among objects and people, in contact with culture—without actually buying anything.
The same could be said of browsing the internet.
The tab epitomizes the increasingly fickle, fractured nature of attention—the urge to click and start anew with each rising thought or impulse—but it’s also a testament to a conservative desire to keep options open, cling to momentary wishes and intentions, and never quite give up on iterations of past selves.
The internet browser foments these anxieties. In 19th-century department stores, browsing was an in-the-moment, flight-of-fancy, leave-no-trace activity. But as a tool, the browser maintains a record of the places we’ve been, the information we’ve sought, the questions we’ve asked. The browser keeps tabs; it has a memory. And, crucially, your browser does not really belong to you. It remembers your history until you ask it to forget. Beneath the browser’s surface—which has shaped both the way the internet appears to us and the way we look at it—there is a rich subterrane of information about how we browse and, with it, who we are.
Please click on: Who is browsing Whom?