Chain of Demand
by Barbara Quint
September 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the
President's Council of Advisers
on Science and Technology [http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2002/13826.htm].
In the course of his speech to
the assembled scientists, he
touched on the problem of getting
people to use available technology:
And I'm trying to not just put computers on desks, but to
make sure that those computers are being used. How many corporate
offices have you all walked into and there in the CEO's or
the Chairman's office is that wonderful computer with a coffee
mug on top of it and a blank screen?... And so we all have
to practice what we preach.
Proving that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk,
Powell went on to say:
I told my staff: "I no longer have any encyclopedias, any
dictionaries, or any reference materials anywhere in my office,
whatsoever, I don't need them. I've stopped using all reference
materials because you don't need it. All you need is a search
engine." Now, I occasionally get in trouble by making reference
to particular proprietary products. I won't do so here. But
I have a search engine on my screen all day long so that if
I need to know anything about anything or anybody, or whatever,
I just throw it in the search engine and it's faster than me
reaching for a dictionary or reaching for an encyclopedia,
or reaching for a reference book. So I just threw them all
out. I'm trying to create an atmosphere that says science and
technology have fundamentally changed the way in which we must
operate as a Department, as a group of people, and I want you
all to get with it.
Well, this remark pushed a whole set of buttons for me. On
the one hand, "Hallelujah! He gets it! Online Forever!" On
the other hand, "There goes the dictionary, encyclopedia, reference
publishing business. Lots of good friends (not to mention advertisers)
in that crowd. Hmm." And, if Powell sees reference material
as just books, how long before the "book people" (AKA librarians)
go the way of the Webster's? Lots more good friends (not to
mention subscribers) in that crowd. On the other hand, one
should not let personal considerations interfere with one's
joy in and support for achieving better information for people
There's an old line: "There are only three kinds of information:
good, fast, and cheap, and you only get two out of three." Well,
the Internet and its Web have clearly exploded that theory.
You can get three out of three, but the fact still remains,
that there are only three kinds of information good,
fast, and cheap. And though the Internet and the Web can provide
all three simultaneously, they do not always do so.
Case in point. Consider that dictionary lying on the floor
next to Colin Powell's desk. Perhaps, as it fell, it opened
to the A's. The other day, while working on an ITI NewsBreak,
I received an embargoed press release from a major vendor (which
shall remain nameless, since it doesn't affect the story and
I promised confidentiality). The vendor was marketing a new
product line using the tag "Actionable Information" for a launch
scheduled on the following Monday. WHOA! STOP THE PRESSES!!
I immediately got on the phone to the vendor's PR and marketing
staffs and warned them of the danger. The vendor staff revised
the launch material to a safer, more effective term.
"Actionable" is a pejorative, particularly in the context
of an information product. According to the dictionary, the
word "actionable" means "giving cause for legal action," hardly
an incentive to purchasing business information. ("Buy our
data and spend your next 2 years in court.") Just to double-check,
I ran the word by our old friend, Google. (By the way, though
Powell refused to give any free commercial to a particular "proprietary" product
in his address, what search engine do you think tops his desktop?)
Anyway, Google quickly displayed hundreds of uses of the term "actionable," most
of them using it as an attractive buzzword just the way the
vendor meant it action-oriented, pro-action, can-do,
"Aha!" thought the editor, "Another 'problematic' in the
making." "Problematic" originally referred to situations which
could be treated as problems, but the "problems" did not need
to be critical or any more than an intellectual exercise. So
sometimes the term implied doubts that a difficult situation
even existed, that the matter under discussion had risen above
more than an intellectual exercise. For example, if I say, "Two
trains leave a station, one traveling east at 60 miles an hour,
the other traveling west at 75 miles an hour. If both stay
on that course for 4 hours, how long will it take...?," that's
problematic. It could be a real problem and even a critical
one if the questioner works for Amtrak, but it could also just
be someone's homework assignment. Nevertheless, these days,
people use the word "problematic" to mean "filled with problems," preferring
the shiny new term to the world-weary but still on-point words, "troublesome" or "difficult."
Google did its job. It showed the latest usage of a term.
It provided the raw data which a student of language could
use to plot the migration of a term from a negative to a positive.
What it did not do, however, is perform the role of a dictionary
and advise the user on the correct, or at least the best, usage
for a word.
Now we could all sit here with our legs crossed and prepare
to send an official letter of reprimand diplomatically
worded, of course, as befits a letter to the Department of
State and wait to hear the soft thud as our letter hits
the bottom of some minor functionary's circular file. Or, we
could get to work on solving the problem.
Promoting a retreat to print won't work. Nor should it. Powell
is right. It's better to have one good tool that solves all
(or most) problems and that everyone uses, than dozens or hundreds
of alternative solutions that most people don't have or don't
use if they do. So instead of bringing Powell and the Department
of State and the rest of humanity to physical library solutions,
let's find some way to bring the solutions into the line of
sight of those users. For example, what if we could persuade
Google to do a special spidering of reference material and
include an icon on its spare and elegant, less-is-more interface
for authoritative sources? Or what if we got ICANN to give
us that dot-lib domain tag? Then we could all use it and have
a special search engine drilling down through the domain. Or
maybe a combination of both. At present, Google uses popularity
of sites as part of its relevancy ranking algorithms. In this
ranking, rumor hath it, Google gives special weight to usage
coming from the dot-edu sector. If we had the dot-lib in place,
Google might give us special weight as well. By the way, the
dot-lib should include some room for major library vendors.
People need the best and truest information. But it's not
the job of the masses to find it themselves. It's the job of
the information professional to put it into the people's hands
and, if necessary, to push it into their faces.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is email@example.com.