“The Internet has co-opted the word “browse” for its own purposes, but it’s worth pointing out the difference between browsing in a virtual realm and browsing in the actual world. Depending on the terms entered, an Internet search engine will usually come up with hundreds, thousands, or millions of hits, which a person can then skate through, clicking when she sees something that most closely echoes her interest. It is a curious quality of the Internet that it can be composed of an unfathomable multitude and, at the same time, almost always deliver to the user the bits that feed her already-held interests and confirm her already-held beliefs.
It points to a paradox that is, perhaps, one of the most critical of our time: To have access to everything may be to have nothing in particular. After all, what good does this access do if we can only find our way back to ourselves, the same selves, the same interests, the same beliefs over and over? Is what we really want to be solidified, or changed? If solidified, then the Internet is well-designed for that need.
But, if we wish to be changed, to be challenged and undone, then we need a means of placing ourselves in the path of an accident. For this reason, the plenitude may narrow the mind. Amazon may curate the world for you, but only by sifting through your interests and delivering back to you variations on your well-rehearsed themes: Yes, I do love Handke! Yes, I had been meaning to read that obscure play by Thomas Bernhard! A bookstore, by contrast, asks you to scan the shelves on your way to looking for the thing you had in mind. You go in meaning to buy Hemingway, but you end up with Homer instead. What you think you like or want is not always what you need. A bookstore search inspires serendipity and surprise.”