Grazing, Browsing and Hunting
How Humans Acquire Information
In 1980, I found myself working for Sony as national market development manager for interactive products. My task was explaining the new technologies of computer-controlled interactive media to CEOs and their minions. These imperious bigwigs would sit me down and demand, “OK, kid, what’s this interactive multimedia thing, and how will it make me money?” Then, raising their wristwatches, “You have two minutes - GO!”
The Apple II was the state of the art, and the IBM PC was still a year away. Most of these execs had never thought about how interactive information and media could benefit their customers, or how ordinary people could gain wealth and knowledge with computers. “What do you mean, interact? Why would anyone want to do that?” It was no use talking to them about latency, bandwidth, and control. I needed an elevator pitch.
Searching for an analogy, I learned (from Darwin no less), that humans gather information in the same three ways that animals gather food - grazing, browsing, and hunting. So I told them, and ultimately, hundreds of audiences large and small:
Grazing is sitting in front of the TV in an alpha trance, eyes wide open, information, good or bad, flowing in - no control over the content. We all love to graze on movies, books, plays and concerts, but it’s important to understand that grazers don’t want or expect to interact with the content.
Following your whims through a magazine or shopping mall - cruising over a large information space with no explicit target in mind. Browsing offers the serendipity of unexpected dopamine hits, which create the desire for more.
Searching for a phone number, stock tip or a restaurant reservation. Information hunting requires focused tools to get you the required information in the shortest possible time. Things like talking characters (remember Clippy the Microsoft talking paper clip?) and elaborate user interfaces just get in the way. Coders know.
If you want more information on my analogy, click here:1
What most people love is browsing and grazing.
However, in business, office workers are only allowed to hunt. Grazing on TV shows or browsing Twitter on the job can get you fired. It’s no wonder that after being forced to hunt all day, workers come home tired and want to veg out, hungry to graze on a TV show or browse the internet. This also explains the popularity of working at home, where workers can control their own information diet and take breaks, switching from hunting to browsing or grazing as desired and in private.
Shopping malls depend on browsing. You come in hunting for shoes, and suddenly, “Hey, I smell pizza - let’s go!” A few steps later, “Oh look, a puppy!” Amazon is highly evolved to turn hunters into browsers. Their algorithms personalize your browsing, making it more engaging for you and profitable for them.
The internet web browser was named that precisely because it was the first software that allowed users to browse using a computer. Before that, computers were limited to command-line hunting (painful), and grazing on movies (mostly porn). The World Wide Web and the iPhone took off like rockets because they supported all three modes of information consumption.
Today we are on the brink of the AI revolution. Like the computers of old, AI today is text-centric, even for creating images. The early adopters are intrepid hunters, exploring the new landscape, taking risks, learning, and inventing tools to create wealth for themselves and for us. But it will take more than hunters to build the mass market for AI.
It’s a good bet that ordinary people will enthusiastically embrace AI when it serves their desires for grazing, browsing and hunting - using intelligent multimedia interfaces. It happened with the internet and smartphones. There is no reason to believe differently about AI. So it’s time to start thinking about how to make AI technology work for people in the way that they expect to receive their information.
How about a question to ponder before the next posting?
Who will be the companies to successfully integrate AI to serve the vast consumer grazing, browsing and hunting markets?
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A Thought for the day
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When I began hunting for a way to describe how humans gather information, the connection to gathering food seemed natural, since food acquisition is a fundamental information-driven process for all living organisms.
I was surprised to find that Charles Darwin had described grazing, browsing and hunting in the 1850s in his book Origin of Species. His hypothesis and now my hypothesis has stood the test of time for 150 years.
I have used grazing, browsing, and hunting on audiences from MIT to the Pentagon and numerous speaking engagements, including lectures at the Stanford Graduate School of Engineering. In the 1990s, I taught the principles of multimedia design to a generation of students at San Francisco State University, some of whom worked at Netscape, Apple, and other leading-edge companies at the beginning of the World Wide Web.
Quoting Stewart Brand from his book The Media Lab, 1987:
“Some of the Media Lab researchers like to quote an optical disk prophet named Mark Heyer on the subject of information seeking:
‘In my view, there are only three ways in which we gather information - by grazing, browsing or hunting...’ “
With empirical proof, I am encouraged to think that my hypothesis is correct. If so, these are the three base algorithms that create our human experience of information. There is still considerable work to be done in establishing the neurobiological relationships that prove causation and this is a topic of my current research.