Will Robinson! Danger!"
by Barbara Quint
As a genre,
mystery novels often display the virtue of commenting
on daily life, particularly urban life,
with wry wisdom and ironic perception. A recent book
from a series featuring a middle-aged, technophobic,
Italian police detective carried a bemused commentary
by the lead character on the increased number of crazy
people he noticed while walking the streets these days.
More and more he would see people walking along talking
to themselves and getting answers. Some would
have voluble arguments, some would even lose the arguments.
And all with no one there but themselves.
Fortunately, the detective remembered the sage advice
his mother had given him as a small child whenever
they saw such sad cases. Mother had warned him: (1)
never let them get behind you, and (2) never look them
in the eye. (When you think about it, such advice might
leave the "advisee" looking a little odd too. The bodily
contortions necessary to avoid eye contact while still
positioning oneself vis-à-vis another's location
could get tricky.) The one thing the detective noticed
about today's one-sided conversationalists that differed
from the wackos of his youth was the presence of wires
dangling from, or devices pressed to, their ears.
Some of these odd ducks even have drivers' licenses.
Look out your window the next time traffic stalls on
the freeway and you may see the driver of the car next
to you engaged in an animated discussion gestures,
laughter, pursed lips, furrowed brow, nods, etc. and
all in a vehicle with no passengers.
Most of these people think they're cool. (Some probably
think they're Napoleon.) But one thing they definitely
are, dear reader, are our clients. Yes! These strange,
sad, vulnerable beings have been given into our charge
to protect and keep from harm to the best of our abilities.
If we fail, what will happen to these babes in the
woods, lying as Shakespeare put it "naked
to mine enemies"?
Trouble looms in the darkness ahead. And the danger
comes mainly from the lights in the darkness. Life
in the information profession has taught us all that "sometimes
the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train." This
issue of Searcher is replete with wonderful
articles, but the hidden dynamite lies in Amelia Kassel's
article on the spring workshop of the Southern California
Online Users Group (SCOUG) ["Text Mining for Reputations:
SCOUG Spring Workshop, 2004," pp. 58-61]. Admittedly,
as a lifelong member of SCOUG and a planner for this
particular workshop, I have a prejudiced outlook. Nonetheless,
the promise of the new text-mining platforms for building
sophisticated answer products is only matched by the
dangers in accepting those answers without vigorous
One thing is clear: Such vigorous monitoring will
not come from our end-user clients, even the most brilliant,
most energetic, and most sophisticated. Such monitoring
takes discipline, focus, persistence, and time. End
users will lack the time, the will, or the talent.
If you don't believe me, consider this statistic. For
many years now, through several generations of Windows'
development, Microsoft has been tying more and more
of its feature improvements, and/or the quickest, simplest
way of reaching key features in its programs, to the
right-click button on the mouse. Yet Microsoft studies
show that 75 percent of Windows users do NOT use the
right-click button. Windows' market dominance means
practically everyone with a computer uses Windows to
do practically everything they do on a computer. Yet
only a quarter of them take the trouble to use a second
finger in tapping the potential of the software they
use. Not one more finger!
Now answer products are on their way. According to
a squib in PC Magazine, Microsoft itself is
only 2 years away from releasing its next-generation
competition to Google, called Answerbot. For an early
version of where Microsoft is heading, you might look
at Microsoft's Newsbot and Blogbot services, which
may be out this year. These new products will not proffer
sites where information might appear, as Google and
Yahoo! Search and other Web search engines do now.
These products will simply answer questions authoritatively and
briefly, if people plan to receive their answers on
tiny PDAs. Most likely the answers will come with an
option to check the source. Perhaps all users will
have to do is right-click, hmm? We could end up looking
back on these Google-searching days as a golden era
of Web scholarship, where a "greatest generation" of
Web users actually took the time to read URLs and select
Nor are the answer products limited to quick, short,
factual, "look-up" answers. Reputation monitoring services
are the first generation of products coming to commercial
release from these tools. Factiva's Reputation Manager,
done in partnership with IBM Web Fountain's top-of-the-line
text-mining platform, could wipe out half the staff
at Fortune 500 competitive intelligence centers. Its
six-figure annual subscription price might help motivate
such staff reductions. The Factiva service is very
sophisticated, building evaluative factors into its
assessments. This kind of product intends to achieve
the status of an information adviser, not just an information
We are moving closer to the realization of the science-fiction
dream of computers that can protect one from harm on
their own initiative, ones so knowledgeable and nurturing
that Will Robinson can sleep in peace until he hears
them call. But is it safe to sleep in their digital
arms? The sense of safety and security has such appeal
that it could lure users into believing without checking,
into trusting without monitoring, into acting upon
information without verifying its accuracy.
Who shall save the innocents? Super Searchers to
the rescue! The information professionals serving users
must rise to the task of assessing these new services,
of separating the wheat from the chaff, of monitoring
when the wheat services start switching to the cheaper
chaff. Information professionals must also identify
new answer product services that could solve client
problems effectively and efficiently and promote their
How shall we perform this task? First step, we must
understand not just the questions, but the questioners.
We must know what people will ask and how, what answers
they will accept and why, what decisions they will
make based on those answers, and whether those answers
warrant those decisions. As always, first comes the
reference interview, only now, instead of an individual
interview with one requester and one request, it becomes
an ongoing collection of data on our client base (including
the people who could use us but don't).
By the way, the shape and structure of building such
a client database is the subject of SCOUG's annual
retreat, held in Santa Barbara at the end of July [http://www.scougweb.org].
If you can't join us there, Searcher will report
the results of the meeting in a future issue. And readers
can expect to see more and more coverage of the challenges
coming from new answer product platforms in future
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.