What Libraries Can Teach Us About the Internet

We are losing serendipity in our digital lives. Might the experience of browsing through libraries and farmers markets show a new path forward?

By Xische Editorial, March 28, 2019

Source: PureSolution/ Shutterstock

Source: PureSolution/Shutterstock

One of the great appeals of visiting a library is that you never really know what you will find. As you stand in the aisle before the book you came for, something completely random might catch your eye. This serendipity of discovery is as old as libraries themselves. It’s part of what makes libraries unique temples of knowledge. But it’s also at risk.

In the digital age, we no longer need to visit libraries. Instead, we hunt for volumes online, simply typing the title or author’s name in Google or Amazon. The serendipity is lost. But wait, you might protest, what about algorithms? Indeed, anyone who has used Amazon or Google search results has experienced an algorithm serving up tailored suggestions based on your browsing history and a whole slew of other data obtained by tracking your online behaviour.  Better results based on your specific interests. What could be wrong with that? It misses something intrinsic to the process of knowledge accumulation. The serendipity of visiting a library is special because it allows people to discover something unexpected.

This is a narrow entry point to a larger problem in the technology sector. As internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon continue to carve out and dominate market share, consumers are at risk of being digitally siloed. We have written about the challenges of super applications such as WeChat and Facebook’s future plans with regard to regulation but what about knowledge creation? If our intellectual foundations are increasingly shaped by algorithms designed to keep us on a specific platform, that becomes a major challenge.

There is a response, however, gaining steam around various pockets of the web and it’s modelled after the “buy local” approach. The rise of farmer’s markets over the last two decades highlights a consumer trend in the food sector. Namely, that supporting local farmers through purchasing locally grown food is better for the environment and the economy -- and our taste buds. As the movement has matured, most major retailers now stock locally farmed alternatives alongside traditional produce. Today, many consumers strike a balance between routine big box store purchases and weekend splurges at the farmer’s market.

Borrowing a page from the ‘buy local’ food movement, internet users are starting to look beyond the services of the major technology giants in order to bring a bit of serendipity back into their digital lives. Writing in Quartz about this shift in consumer behaviour, Matthew de Silva notes, “Like compasses, search engines are useful tools, guiding us through the oceans of online information. But unlike compasses, they are often dynamic and personalised. Search engines gather data and learn from each input. While that customised aspect makes our searches more efficient, it can subtly undermine our autonomy.” He goes on to suggest different approaches, “alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo and Qwant – a French company – are growing in popularity. Because these tools don’t track users, they are less precise than Google, but they help users avoid ‘filter bubbles’ that limit what they see. DuckDuckGo recently surpassed 35 million daily direct search queries.”

If we think beyond simple search applications, the possibilities for a buy local approach on the internet are exciting and translate to real profits for smaller markets and companies. The recent news that Uber agreed to buy Careem, a Dubai-based ride-hailing application with operations around the Middle East, for $3.1bn reveals the highlights of the buy local approach. Careem, with its local insight and ear to the ground, created a superior product for the needs of its customer base. The company didn’t reinvent the wheel. In fact, it largely recreated Uber’s business model, but with the right insight and customisations to appeal to a specific set of customers.

In order to keep the internet innovative and somewhat wild, we have to ensure that the local approach to knowledge creation and products and services, is a continuous fixture. This is becoming all the more important as large technology companies continue to expand their market share and thus have more power to influence our digital behaviour. So what is the next step forward?

Returning to the Careem example, the next step is as obvious as it is simple. Smaller markets such as the UAE and other countries must continue to invest in their homegrown technology ecosystem. Without Dubai’s world-class infrastructure and access to the best talent across the region, Careem wouldn’t have developed into the application it is today. Thus, more investment will pay even larger dividends. At the same time, individual consumers would be well served from mixing up their daily digital routines as much as possible.

Switching search engines and stepping outside one’s daily comfort zone is a great way to bring a semblance of spontaneity back into one’s digital existence. It’s easier said than done. The algorithms that run our lives are designed to keep us locked in, and so breaking those chains is no simple task. The rewards for society and the internet as a whole, however, mean such a shift will ultimately be beneficial for all.