Clicking Down a Digital Rabbit Hole

By Richard Cohen
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 9:03 PM

A long time ago, I discovered the word "serendipity." (Possibly, I was looking for another word.) Once I had it -- the word, the concept -- I loved it because, at bottom, it explained why I was in journalism in the first place and why it was so much fun to delve into one thing and find something else. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe so. But the serendipitous one certainly is.

The word means lucky, fortuitous, accidental -- and while it has all those qualities I always think of it as searching for one thing and finding something else. Back before computers, it was a common newsroom experience to ask the library for the "clips" (newspaper clippings) on a certain subject and get back a fat envelope -- or two or three -- stuffed with much more information than you could possibly want. You had to go through those envelopes, story by story, until you found what you were looking for. Sometimes, though, you found what you least expected or what you forgot.

A computer search, however, gives you back pretty much what you asked for. If you forgot something, the computer is not going to know it and it is not going to refresh your memory. If you want to look up John Jones and his wife, Mary, you'll get what you asked for -- but maybe not anything on Sally Jones, his first wife. I lamented this loss of serendipity and rued my reliance on the computer. In this respect, life had changed for the worse.

Then, strictly by serendipity, serendipity returned. This happened last month when, as is my wont, I was reading sections of the next day's New York Times online. I clicked on a story from the Sunday Styles section titled "Dude, Here's My Book," which was about Tucker Max, described in the story as an "Internet celebrity, boozer, lothario and admitted Class A jerk." It seems that Mr. Max, a recent law school graduate (Duke), has devoted his pathetic life to boozing and sex and chronicling it all on a blog and in a book. It is, as they say, a living.

I read the story with great interest. Max was a cad. Max was a pig, male chauvinist and otherwise. Max was not so much a Class A jerk as in a class by himself. His every evening was devoted to hard drinking and then sex, some of it recalled, some of it not -- much of it documented by clicking the URL imbedded in the story. This brought me to the Tucker Max Web page and, in addition to his travel schedule and book-promotion stuff, a dozen or so entries from his blog, much of it downright dirty.

I clicked. Soon I felt as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a strange land. It was a land where most of the people were drunk. Their drinking did not consist of getting high, achieving a nice, friendly buzz or attempting to compliment food with a certain wine, but a frantic effort at getting smashed. This turned sex into random collisions, late-night fender benders. It lacked sensuality, eroticism and, from the telling, pleasure itself. I then came across the tale titled "The (almost banned) Miss Vermont Story." I paused. I clicked. Further down the rabbit hole I went until I came across the URL for Miss Vermont herself. I clicked. Naturally.

Now I was in another kind of strange land, far from Tucker Max and his darkness. I was in the wholesome Web page of the former Miss Vermont. She presented a different image of herself than did Tucker Max. Among other things, her Web page promoted sexual abstinence.

But where was I? I had clicked my way far from The New York Times. I had gone through a Dantesque experience with Tucker Max and now was in sunny Vermont (actually, Miss Vermont had moved to Florida) with someone else I could not stand.

I started to click my way home -- clambering out of the digital rabbit hole -- finally returning to the Times and, soon, to the comfy familiarity of the news pages with their reports of war, famine and the daunting numskullery of George W. Bush. I pulled myself up, looked around and repressed a desire to go back. After all, it was serendipity, I'm now sure, that killed the cat.


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