11/17/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Are We About to Lose the Art of Browsing?

This past Sunday's NY Times Style Magazine had an interesting article by Andrew O'Hagen lauding the miraculous transformation the smartphone has rendered to contemporary life. He claims that "Getting better is getting better." The availability of connectivity to the world of products, friends, music, entertainment, and opportunity to self-express trumps nostalgia for lessons learned about patience and ingenuity from a "simpler past."

This resonated with me. My iPhone is almost permanently connected to my body. It's the first thing I reach for in the morning. Ever curious, I leave no question raised during the day unanswered, from what was the name of that actress from the 1950s to where can I get a replacement bulb for my refrigerator to an arcane piece of information needed for a book I'm writing. (Of course, I don't use my smartphone when I'm working on my computer, but you get my point.)

Here's my problem. The internet is spot-on for getting information about what you know you don't know. But it's not so good for what you don't know you don't know. I don't browse well online. I have a short attention span for scanning one bright screen after another. That's why I love going to the library or a great independent bookstore. Such places invite serendipitous discovery. I love boutiques where someone has done a lot of work to gather unusual things that might not cross my path otherwise. Sure, I go shopping online but it's not the same as picking up, leafing through, watching what my hand will pick up next or what will catch my eye. There's a certain zen to recreational shopping that creates an opening for the unexpected. If you're a collector, antiquing is becoming a lost art. Most dealers are now on eBay. The hunt by the discerning eye and the triumph of a great find are rare events these days. And it's showing in the marketplace. In Manchester, VT, for example, where we have a home, just about all the boutiques have closed in favor of outlet stores. As a shopper, I am overwhelmed with too much choice. I want someone who knows better than I to hunt and gather for me--hence my love of boutiques. I can appraise a unique shop in 10 seconds to know if I want to stay and browse.

Thirty-something years ago I attended a lecture given by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, who described the yet-to-be transformation of daily life due to computers. He claimed that every possible human need could be met by computers so that the only reason to leave home would be to find a sex partner or to get buried. I don't think he factored in a need to emerge into society and to escape cabin fever. But I can't help noticing a considerable lessening of foot traffic at shopping malls and movie houses. Still, he was amazingly graphic and prescient. Scary then. Scary now.