Your Internet Browser Does Not Belong to You

On streets and in malls, browsing was a way of withholding commitment. But online, no act of browsing is ever really idle.

The New Tech Lexicon

In the beginning, the browser was an herbivore who ate buds, shoots, and twigs off of trees and bushes. While grazers faced down to munch on grasses, browsers kept their heads up. They reached and craned, looking outward as they searched for sustenance.

The word took on a more figurative sense in the 19th century. As Europe industrialized, covered shopping arcades flourished across the continent. Here, sheltered from the elements, walking the promenades and taking in the sights became an upper-class form of entertainment and pleasure-seeking—particularly for women, for whom it provided a socially acceptable excuse to leave the house and move freely in public. A browser was someone who meandered through the world of ideas or goods, taking up whatever struck their fancy. Where the grazer was steadfast in their pursuit—they knew what they wanted—browsing implied a certain flippancy, a lack of seriousness or commitment.

Browsing came about as a result of changing material conditions, but it was also a natural extension of a philosophy of curious leisure and an aesthetic of exploratory idyll popularized in the 1800s. The flâneur—an urban wanderer and watcher, at once detached from and attuned to the newly industrialized environment—sprang from the literary imagination of the era. Baudelaire describes the flâneur as a “passionate spectator” and speaks of the experience of wanting to “be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”

Whether great numbers of idle semi-artists were really roaming the streets of Paris and taking respite in their alienation is debatable, but there certainly existed a growing number of places in which “the world” was on display. Department stores were a novelty that cropped up more or less simultaneously in Europe and North America during this time. These stores turned patrons into both the players and audience in a theater of commercial and cultural comings and goings. New retail environments created novel blends of public and private space, inviting citizens to become both consumers and bystanders. 

Obviously, amenities and displays were intended to usher in buyers, but those who preferred to look on, roam, and simply show up, seeing and being seen, were also welcomed. Perusal was one of the luxuries on offer. To be a browser was arguably the defining pastime of the emergent middle class. Blending curiosity, aspiration, consumption, and leisure, browsing offered a new way of looking that was particular to the burgeoning of modernity. Here, clinging to the mere surface of things and staying uncommitted to any course of action meant withholding or deferring a purchase—refusing to spend. In this way, the browser exerts a right to “shop”—that is to say, to be among objects and people, in contact with culture—without actually buying anything.

The same could be said of browsing the internet.

The invention of the first web browser by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 marked a tectonic shift in the power dynamics inherent in the act of browsing. Presciently called the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee’s browser conflated the program and the idea of the internet itself (the software was subsequently renamed Nexus, to avoid this very confusion). The project was introduced to colleagues at CERN, where Berners-Lee was working, in 1991, and over the next couple of years computer scientists at various academic institutions produced browsers of their own, leaving a family tree of now-extinct applications (MidasWWW, ViolaWWW, Lynx, Erwise, Cello).

In 1993, Marc Andreessen and Erica Bina, programmers working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, created Mosaic, the first browser designed for the mass market. Mosaic, which was easy to install and use and was backed by responsive customer support, showed inline images (earlier browsers displayed pictures in separate windows because they were aimed at users downloading charts and figures rather than looking at pictures).

Mosaic was the first application to make the internet feel truly browsable. Writing in WIRED in 1994, Gary Wolfe described the ways Mosaic had changed the internet’s texture for everyday users: “you can travel through the online world along paths of whim and intuition. Mosaic is not the most direct way to find online information. Nor is it the most powerful. It is merely the most pleasurable way.” And with this novel pleasure, the browser transformed the internet from the rarified space of programmers, computer scientists, and academics into the public sphere. Now, a browser was no longer just a human performing the activity, but also the tool used to perform it. It had become the navigator itself, the point of access.

Marc Andreessen would go on to create Netscape Navigator, the browser that competed for dominance with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in the “first browser war” of the late ’90s and early aughts. Though Microsoft would eventually be slapped with antitrust violations for including Internet Explorer with its OS, sanctions came too late for Netscape to recoup its claim on the market share. Netscape open-sourced its software and reappeared as the not-for-profit Mozilla and the browser Firefox. Google and Apple entered the fray with Chrome and Safari in 2003 and 2008, respectively.

Google’s browser in particular stood out. With its minimalist interface, emphasis on extensions, and an ultra-rapid turnover of updates, it would eventually overtake Explorer to become the de facto face of the internet. This marked a turning point in the second browser war, which lasted from the mid-aughts until 2017. During this time, various browsers jostled to loosen Microsoft’s grip on the market, improving their products (and increasingly preempting Explorer) with features now considered pro forma to life online, such as tabbed browsing, private search sessions, phishing filters, and spell checkers.

The tab originated with a little-known browser from the late ’90s called SimulBrowse (later renamed NetCaptor), but it only emerged as the default unit of internet exploration in the mid-aughts as a number of competitive browsers released updates with an emphasis on a refined tabbed browsing experience. Tabs afforded browsing an almost literal new dimension, allowing a person to be in multiple places at once. In this way, it’s a perfect example of how the browser as tool simultaneously responded to and created the phenomenology of internet life. The tab epitomizes the increasingly fickle, fractured nature of attention—the urge to click and start anew with each rising thought or impulse—but it’s also a testament to a conservative desire to keep options open, cling to momentary wishes and intentions, and never quite give up on iterations of past selves.

The internet browser foments these anxieties. In 19th-century department stores, browsing was an in-the-moment, flight-of-fancy, leave-no-trace activity. But as a tool, the browser maintains a record of the places we’ve been, the information we’ve sought, the questions we’ve asked. The browser keeps tabs; it has a memory. And, crucially, your browser does not really belong to you. It remembers your history until you ask it to forget. Beneath the browser’s surface—which has shaped both the way the internet appears to us and the way we look at it—there is a rich subterrane of information about how we browse and, with it, who we are.

When a person is a browser, where their attention alights doesn’t fundamentally affect the nature of their environment: The world does not change to suit, confirm, or contradict their whims. If, say, you flip through the magazines and newspapers in a bookstore or library and are attracted by a headline, the other magazines and newspapers don’t take note, become animate, and rearrange themselves to further entice your attention. Online, however, this is essentially what happens all the time. Though you might be “only browsing,” the internet responds to your habits—what you click on, where you linger—and reveals itself to you differently in response. The idea of browsing as a withholding of commitment—and, more particularly, of one’s purchasing power—isn’t really possible in this context. To use a browser is, directly or indirectly, to participate in commerce. No act of browsing is ever really idle. 

The internet makes it possible to connect to a wild array of ideas, people, and goods, drawing the farthest reaches of the world improbably close. And yet, time spent searching, noodling, and browsing online tends to feel narrow and airless, like being led toward an unforeseeable, and too often, regrettable conclusion. This may be because there isn’t a neutral context to which you can return—there’s nowhere stable you can look up to reorient yourself. Perhaps the web was intended to be “surfed” (picture: cresting the top note of the ocean, carried away by a burst of natural energy beneath your feet, wind in your hair, and so on and so forth). But in a world that rearranges and shapes itself to accommodate the whims of your attention, an engrossing online browsing session is more like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Browsing online is, in its own way, more limited than browsing in real life. Now that the browser as tool has usurped the browser as being, what are we left with? Who are we—or, rather, what have we become—when we browse? Ironically, it seems to me that we’re more akin to grazers. As our search engines learn to do more and more for us—preempting our queries, directing our attention, anticipating our desires—browsing becomes less like idly plucking shoots from the tips of foliage and more like having someone shake a handful of decontextualized leaves in front of your face, so close that you can’t see anything else.