Wednesday, January 24, 1996

Browsing

IF You were approached by somebody who solicitously inquired, "Do you need any help at all? We do have that in the cerise as well. Would you like to see it in the cerise?" You might, in the distant past, have been tempted to reply to the interloper with a firm "No thanks, I'm only browsing". These days, to apply the word "only" to the activity would be to make a large and embarrassing error, since browsing has become one of the defining activities of the 1990s.

For many years, the word "browse" seemed to be moving away from its original meaning, which older dictionaries define as "to eat and nibble of small twigs and leaves". Often they accommodatingly add that the word is derived from the obsolete French word broust, meaning a young shoot, in turn giving brouster, to feed on these tasty morsels. The immediate image is of squat, hen like creatures with big eyes, far too timid, or ill equipped to fight for food, picking only those pieces that require no heavy chewing and are easily digestible in their minute stomachs the sort of folks, in fact, that you might expect to find jammed in front of computer terminals.

More recent definitions tend to switch the emphasis to the figurative meaning, so that "browse" comes to qualify the standard of attention given to a text. The word came to be applied to a certain, very relaxed form of reading. This probably had much to do with the random way in which factoids and phrases were picked up, but also with the fact that to do so it was necessary to finger your way through the leaves of the book.

With the invention of hypertext, the character of browsing was transformed. The word may previously have suggested reading without due care, but with the arrival of multi layered, non linear text, browsing became the only plausible approach. (In this context, surf the internet verb much favoured by aul' fellas frying to sell canned drinks to teenagers, opens up a far less fruitful set of metaphors.)

Hence people using the World Wide Web (WWW) the world's largest hypertext no matter how serious their intent, remain browsers. Unlike the feeding of the devilish trains that proto green novelist, Henry David Thoreau noticed had "browsed off all the woods on Walden shore," WWW browsing is an extremely ecologically sustainable activity, since you can browse and browse and browse, but there will still be plenty left for everyone.

There is, of course, money in browsing, as the owners of Netscape, the brand name most associated with the word, discovered in 1995. Marc Andreesen and his colleagues at the company developed a programme for reading the Web, referred to, naturally enough, as a browser. Though many other companies also developed "browsers" such as Mosaic, Ariadna and PowerBrowser, none has yet matched the success of Netscape. When the company went on the US stock market last year, Andreesen is reported to have made $ 50 million overnight. Hardly chicken feed.

LOAD-DATE: January 24, 1996

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