Breadth Destroys Depth

A few days ago I posted a question about why modern web retrieval systems offer no explicit relevance feedback mechanisms.  I wonder if it has anything to do with the following attitude, explained by one of my favorite bloggers, Nick Carr:

The problem with the Web, as I see it, is that it imposes, with its imperialistic iron fist, the “ecstatic surfing” behavior on everything and to the exclusion of other modes of experience (not just for how we listen to music, but for how we interact with all media once they’ve been digitized). In the pre-Web world, we not only enjoyed the thrill of the overnight sensation – the 45 that became the center of your waking hours for a week only to be replaced by the new song – but also the deeper thrill of the favorite band in whose work we deeply immersed ourselves, often following its progression over many records and many years. It wasn’t that long ago that buying an album represented, particularly for your average teenager, a significant investment. You thought a lot about that album before you bought it, and once you bought it you took it seriously – you listened to it. Repeatedly. Today, we’re quick to dismiss those ancient days of “scarcity” and to celebrate our current “abundance,” but scarcity had something going for it: it encouraged a deep engagement in listening to a particular piece of music, across the expanse of an album, and it also encouraged, in the artist, an interest in rewarding that engagement. I would like to get back the money I spent on records in my youth, but I would not give up the experience that money bought me.

Perhaps relevance feedback hasn’t been implemented on the web, not because it isn’t useful (it is), not because it doesn’t work (it does), not because it’s too complicated (it isn’t), or not even because it’s too inefficient (depends on the implementation, I suppose).  No, perhaps relevance feedback hasn’t been implemented on the web because most people are busy “ecstatically surfing” the web, favoring quick, easy, surface answers over deeper engagement and knowledge.  A breadth of popular answers may be more valuable to society than being able to go deeper on any one answer.  Carr continues:

It’s the deep, attentive engagement that the Web is draining away, as we fill our iTunes library with tens of thousands of “tracks” at little or no cost. What the Web tells us, over and over again, is that breadth destroys depth. Just hit Shuffle.

I do wonder if there are similarities, and if so, what the social implications are of a society built on breadth over depth.  Not that we aren’t mostly there, already.  But if we’re building information retrieval systems that purposely accelerate skimming and breadth at the expense of depth, if we increase that feedback loop, what does that portend?  It is a question I occasionally ponder as a think about the social impact of my research.

This entry was posted in Exploratory Search, Information Retrieval Foundations, Social Implications. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Breadth Destroys Depth

  1. matt says:

    Jeremy, did you ever read this (by way of laurent):
    http://slate.com/id/2224932

  2. jeremy says:

    No, I hadn’t read it. That’s really good. Thanks!

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