Zoe Papetti

STUMBLE UPON THE EXPLORATION OF THE DIGITAL AGE

Look at a map of the world. All of the oceans and continents are drawn out, along with all of their cities, streets and landmarks. All of these places are known and have been explored previously. Now think about the Internet; has there ever been a complete map showing every corner of the Internet drawn out? Does anyone even know if there are “corners” to the Internet; meaning, does it have an end? In addition, think about what specifically lies within the endless folds of this virtual continuum. The information ranges from pictures of people and places to chemistry homework help centers with funny cat videos and everything else imaginable sprinkled in between. The World Wide Web is undergoing constant growth and change to fit with the ever-changing times of our era, thus, it will never be able to be completely mapped like our Earth. For most, this is a tantalizing concept: Having no foreseeable limit to what one can accomplish on the Internet. Why travel a world that people have already walked when the option of the unknown lies at your fingertips?

To illustrate the limitlessness of the Internet, an author for The New Yorker writes, “That the reality of machines can outpace the imagination of magic, and in so short a time, does tend to lend weight to the claim that the technological shifts in communication we’re living with are unprecedented” (Gopnik 1). Here there is a parallel drawn between the Internet and one’s imagination. It suggests that all of the information located on the Internet could never be shown a stopping point just as a person’s thoughts could never be limited. For now, one’s mind will remain a mystery to everyone but himself, but there may be an attempt to find some of that unknown information on the web: Stumble Upon. This website has 2.2 million new web pages added to its database every month and allows its users to access the ones that are in association with their specific interests. The most compelling feature is that Stumble Upon leads it users to websites that they have never encountered previously just by pushing a little orange button labeled “stumble.” The web pages that are “stumbled upon” are usually new to the user and a product of the unknown causing them to be seen as something exciting. One could discover places and people she had never known of before if s/he went out and traveled the world, but with the success of Stumble Upon, s/he now has the capability to do the same from the comfort of his or her own home. The only things one needs in order to discover are their fingers, their eyes, and Internet access. It does not get much easier than that.

This ease is what brings a person to limit their discovery to the service provided by Stumble Upon, as opposed to physically exploring the world. A journal article from Business Wire states:

Stumble Upon discovers web sites based on your interests, learns what you like, and brings you more. With more than 6 million users and approximately 12 million stumbles daily, Stumble Upon is the leading way to discover great content on the Internet. (“Stumble Upon”)

While the user stares at his computer screen, Stumble Upon’s service does everything that needs to be done in order for him to discover. And all by the prompt of one single mouse click. The months of planning a trip out of town, where one would normally have to save money, gather supplies, and the like, are an action of the past. Now he must only press a button and discovery has begun. The optimal foraging theory of science states that animals will choose the path towards accomplishing a task that expends the least amount of energy. The act of “Stumbling” could be considered an optimal way to explore due to the fact that hardly any energy is expended as one presses an orange button and is automatically brought places he has never been before. But in the sense of the word “optimal” meaning the most favorable or desirable point, this theory proves false in this situation. Stumble Upon may bring its users places they have never been previously, but it does not provide nearly the same experience one has when attending a destination.

It is important that the younger generations begin to realize that discovery on the Internet is not the same as discovery in the real world.

Instead of giving us a new and better way of seeing the world, the Internet is a tool that embodies how we have wanted to see the world for some time. We have built it according to our new ideas about the world, and it gained a power that is destroying pre-existing structures. (Hardy 1)

The things that we all encounter on the Internet are presented in a way that people prefer to see them, not to mention that the Internet is easy to use, cost-effective, and entertaining at times. It is a shame that the glorified version of the world presented on the Internet is replacing the real world outside of our houses and destroying the means (or pre-existing structures) by which people used to explore. It is almost as if Quentin Hardy is referring directly to Stumble Upon when he forms this idea if one takes into account that the service requires its users to create a “personality profile” by selecting a number of interests. Stumble Upon then puts this information to use and customizes each stumble to avoid material that may not fit the user’s fancy but will fall under the categories selected. Is one really exploring if he is only seeing the things that he wants to see? Is not part of the art of discovery the feeling of serendipity: finding something that you were not originally looking for nor that you knew you wanted to find? When a user gives Stumble Upon his interests, he is telling the system that he does not want to try anything new because he knows that his stumbles will fall only under what he has said he enjoys. A New York Times articles reads:

But [finding things on the Internet] isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes. It won’t deliver that magic moment of discovery. (Darlin 1).

It also mentions, “Stumble Upon is a web service that steers users toward content that they are likely to find interesting. […] It’s a good try, but it is still telling readers what they want to know” (1) which further supports both the author’s claim and my own claim that exploring on the Internet will not bring a person true discovery, when defined with serendipity.

Aside from Stumble Upon eliminating the possibility of chance discoveries, the Internet as a whole has taken away the viewers’ ability to decide for himself what it is that he has found. It simply cannot be accomplished with the World Wide Web nowadays because everything is second hand. Information on the Web exists because somebody else put it there. Therefore, that somebody has already done the interpretation of what exactly a viewer has encountered for him or herself. For example, articles on the Web are not a stumbler’s own thoughts; they are someone else’s that the stumbler has just happened to read. Sometimes a person allows himself to believe that the content he has found on the Internet is his own if he is the first of his peers to encounter it, forgetting that he is just reiterating a secondary person’s knowledge and experience. In support and mentioned before, Darlin writes, “We are discovering what everyone else is learning” (1). Articles are one example, but pictures on the Internet are a better illustration of how Internet content is the product of another’s perception. An excerpt from the novel, White Noise, reads,

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally. A long silence followed. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”[…] There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold post cards and slides. […] “We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision.” (Delillo 12)

Although this novel is a work of fiction, Delillo successfully encompasses the real life fact that seeing through another’s eyes is not actually seeing. One may Stumble Upon a photograph of African tribes on the Internet and it may lead him to believe that he would like to visit Africa one day, but the photograph is from another person’s point of view. He may want to visit the Africa he sees through the screen, but the actual Africa may be very different through his own eyes. Encountering information through the Internet takes away the experience of interpreting for oneself what he has seen because someone else interpreted it and put it there before the discovery one makes of it. This applies to every website that Stumble Upon brings it users to as well. If we want to define discovery only by its textual representation in the World English Dictionary of “learning about or encountering something for the first time,” then yes, we are ‘discovering’ on the Internet. But if the Internet is not our own, as it has been illustrated, how could the ‘discoveries’ that we are making through it possibly be called our own either?

Perhaps if one physically explored and decided for himself what it was that he had discovered, he would retain the knowledge gathered since it was his in the first place. Nicholas Carr illustrates the problem of discovering on the Internet by stating the cognitive affects Internet exploration has on its users.

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers. (1)

Numerous studies have yielded results that show the effects of Web use to be those which are listed above and those results show that exploration on the Internet through Stumble Upon affects our brains negatively. Lasting impressions are a product of in-depth thought and analysis, which is experienced when attending a destination or reading a text outside of a screen. On the contrary, the exploration that is now taking place on the Internet is promoting and causing “hurried and distracted thinking” as Carr mentions. When a user has as many distractions available to him as are presented by the Internet, his brain brings his thoughts to a shallower place, resulting in less retention of what he experienced (Carr 1). The ability to think years later about how one felt the moment they discovered something new is slowly becoming a luxury that few people will partake in as the use of Stumble Upon and the Internet grows. The ability to think analytically at all is also at risk for becoming obsolete as people continue to use the Internet for exploration purposes.

If not used as a means of exploring but rather as a way to find entertainment, Stumble Upon proves to be of no risk to one’s capabilities and opportunities. A person can restrict his stumbles to purely online games or puzzles and he would have to go through at least one thousand of each before he found himself with nothing left to do. This is how Stumble Upon should be used: as a way to find entertainment when the real world fails to provide. In the realm of exploration, Stumble Upon should be a stepping-stone to actual discovery. One should see a photograph of a waterfall on Stumble Upon and decide that they are one day going to visit someplace that has a waterfall. They should not be satisfied with that photograph nor should they be falsely led to believe that what is pictured is the extent to what there is to that waterfall. It is time to learn that the Internet is a great escape but the world is an even better one.

Exploration has shifted digital with the rise of the Internet and websites such as Stumble Upon. We show less drive to physically explore the land and experience for ourselves the wonders of the world. It is important that we realize that we are doing such things and try to combat it while we still have the opportunity. When we choose virtual exploration over physical, we choose the path that lacks excitement, lasting memories and imagination. Without those things, our world will lack the joy that results from excitement, the nostalgia that comes from remembering how we felt at a point in our lives and the creativity that gives us some of the most impressive works of humankind. A world without these things is a world not worth exploring, so as we continue to limit our discovery to the Internet we also continue to cause the decline and eventual elimination of exploration altogether.

Works Cited

Gopnik, Adam. “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.” The New Yorker 14 Feb. 2011: 1-5. Web. 5 May 2013.

Hardy, Quentin. “How the Internet is Ruining Everything.” The New York Times. 3 Dec. 2011: Web. 5 May 2013.

Delillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

“Stumble Upon Announces ‘Discovery Beyond the Toolbar’”. Business Wire. 1 Oct.2008: Web. 3 May 2013.

Darlin, Damon. “Serendipity, Lost in the Digital Deluge.” The New York Times. 1 Aug. 2009: Web. 5 May 2013.

Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus: Rewires Brains.” Wired. Disqus, 24 May 2010. Web. 5 May 2013.

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