On the Delegation of Curiosity

Web browsing is something you do when you’re bored. Nothing has engaged your attention, so you go looking for something that sparks your curiosity. Browsing also happens when you were working on something, but a sidebar of recommended content has jostled you out of focus. YouTube works this way.

I Google for “Tom Leighton recursion”. I click on a result. I’m taken to a lecture on independence, instead of recursion. In the sidebar, I don’t see anything that looks like recursion but I see Elon Musk, I see something about the Avengers, something about linear algebra. Everything I see in the sidebar I’m interested in. The list was constructed partially from my channel subscriptions. The important thing for me to keep in mind is that I’m not interested in any of those things right now. I’m interested in recursion. And so I leave YouTube.

Why did I leave? I left because I was engaging in what I’ll call deliberate querying.

Deliberate querying happens when you have an explicit question that you’re trying to answer, and you’re using search technology to help you arrive at an answer.  You have a question. You look for an answer. You don’t switch questions until you’ve exceeded the time allotted to your search or you’ve arrived at an answer.

Browsing starts with foraging for something to do. Querying is a step in something you’re already doing, i.e. trying to answer a question. Why does the distinction matter?

Some questions are very important to me. If I don’t answer them, I retain an epistemic debt. I can’t do my work properly. I can’t dress appropriately for the weather. I can’t determine where I’d like to eat this evening. Every time I capitulate to browsing, the debt increments because the delay matters. I need answers to important questions as soon as I can get them. That’s why they’re important.

Aside from epistemic debt, there is also the matter of the meaning or significance of what I’m doing. Our capacity to imbue our experience with importance is dependent on our capacity to form a coherent narrative involving that experience. When I engage in deliberate querying, I know what I’m about. I’m going to answer a question. My question. I’m not going to allow a service to suggest a random assortment of questions that I should be interested in. I’m not going to allow myself to be overwhelmed by a large volume of questions. I’m going to stay focused, because that’s how I know what I’m about. When I answer the question, I feel like I own what I accomplished. When I browse, I feel like I simply allowed time to pass.

Browsing isn’t all bad. But it should probably be as deliberate as querying. When I need to recover from hard work, I can allow myself to be bored or I can browse. Sometimes I want to be exposed to new things. Browsing is good for that. But most of the time, I’m actually trying to fill my day with a sense of accomplishment and browsing (or the temptation to browse) covertly gets in the way.