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The "right" solution

This article appears in the issue Nov/Dec 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 11]


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Please raise your hand if you're a software vendor and you've said that your "solution" delivers the right information to the right people at the right time. Add 10 points if you ever added, in a knowing tone, " ... and in the right way." Now go sit in the corner and think about what you did.

The fact that it's impossible to deliver on the "right information to the right people," etc. claim isn't what annoys me. The real problem is that if you were to succeed at delivering only the right info at the right time to the right people, you'd be right out of business. In fact, our infatuation with the right-info phrase betrays a deep-seated fear of the Web.

Here's the implied world in which the promise is made. Y'see, we live in a city overcrowded with information. Some of it is good and true, but ever since the Web, we're being overrun by packs of information that wear black T-shirts with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve. Why, it's gotten so that a decent, hardworking man can't walk down his own street without being assaulted by undesirable data elements--uneducated ruffians and women of easy virtue. At best, those lowlifes are distractions from your job, and at worst you may take a toke--the first one's free--and end up as a dissolute hophead, listening to bebop jazz and thinking the homosexual lifestyle is perfectly acceptable.

Behind the idea of the right information is fear--the fear of losing control. And it rests on a cheap pun. "Right" sometimes means "not wrong" and "right" sometimes means "right for some purpose." No one wants wrong information, stuff that is just inaccurate. But the right-info phrase isn't simply promising to filter out inaccuracies. It's also promising to provide you with nothing but the information that's right for making a decision. And that's where it goes wrong.

There literally is no such thing as the right information in that second sense. Let's say you're trying to decide if you should port your software products to Linux or whether it's time to open up an office in Hong Kong. Clearly, you don't want to rely on market data that's inaccurate. But what is the right information required for those decisions? You can't know that until after you made the decision. In fact, the decision itself determines which information you think is right--you decide that the Hong Kong housing start data is irrelevant, the demand from globally based customers has real potential, and the lawyer's report on the threat of new Chinese regulations is overstated.

Humans don't work by taking the right input and pumping out the right decisions as output. Deciding which information to listen to is a crucial part of the decision itself.The cult of rightness--of efficiency, of infallibility, of cause-and-effect decision theory--is more dangerous than a CFO with a really great product idea. Are good decisions ever made by people who only have information? You need to be out in the bustle of the city, talking with street corner toughs, working class stiffs drinking coffee from a metal thermos, museum curators, librarians ... You need to waste your time arguing into the wee hours with someone you think is totally wrong about a point that beer has erased.

Spare me the right information and protect me from the right people. Deliver unto me instead the right conversations with all sorts of people. The Web is the new world of conversations and if you protect me from it, I will become a wizened, frightened, self-important little person hanging onto the right information at the right time to shield me from the real clamor of the newly excited world.


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