Getting an Answer Is One Thing, Learning Is Another

Peter Coffee: In the process of attempting to inform people via IT, it's ironic that we may be misinforming or disinforming them more than ever before.

In the process of attempting to inform people via IT, its ironic that we may be misinforming or disinforming them more than ever before. Were helping people find the most popular sources of whats often inaccurate or misleading data; were answering peoples questions, instead of questioning their implied assumptions. Were applying the ever-more-impressive technologies of Internet search and context-sensitive help toward counterproductive ends.

What got me thinking along these lines was an incident last week, when someone asked me how a computer actually stores pictures and sounds. I handed him a book on PCs (the one that I wrote in 1998, as it happens) and told him that the answers were in Chapter 8. In fact, that was the entire subject of that chapter. But he came back to me a few minutes later, frustrated, saying: "I dont understand why you said I should read this whole chapter. I just had one little question." (Honestly, it was less than 30 pages, with plenty of white space.)

I felt as if I were seeing, in that one brief exchange, the combined success and failure of our efforts over the years to devise interactive tools that answer the question the user is asking—and nothing more than that. Microsoft, with its Office Assistant and "Semantic Web" research efforts, is arguably the leader in giving people what they seem to think they want in this regard, but many others have also pursued these goals. Until now, I have thought that this was a completely good thing, but Im starting to have my doubts.

The problem, Im starting to suspect, is that people may have learned to resist the idea of absorbing a foundation of information before they start accumulating details. Weve thrown so much complexity at people, during the past 20 years or so, that users have had to develop a defense mechanism: "Just tell me what I need to know!" But when we do this, we wind up with people who are merely following recipes that might as well be magic spells.

People used to have a chance to learn fundamentals, and maybe even see opportunities to do things in fundamentally different ways, before they were forced to buy in to the existing way of doing things, before they felt in danger of being hopelessly overtaken by minutiae. But look, for example, at the way weve changed our approach to the task of teaching people to write. We used to start children off with simple tools that did no more than they needed: When they were first learning to form letters, we gave them pencils. When they were ready for words and sentences, we gave them typewriters. When they were ready to start rereading and rewriting their own work, we gave them text editors.

Now, were giving grade-school children desktop publishing tools, whose use exposes choices that they dont understand—and involves answers to questions that the kids have no idea of how, or why, to ask.

The problem also strikes in the opposite direction: Sometimes, its not a question of knowing too little, but rather of "knowing" too much. If you only answer the question that a person chooses to ask, you give up any opportunity to influence the assumptions and beliefs behind that question.

For example, if someone asked you how to stop excessive bleeding from skin punctures, you could answer that question—and that person could happily go back to treating patients by bleeding them with leeches, now that you had "solved" his "problem." Would his patients appreciate your help?

We get angry when someone seems to be condescending to us by asking, "Are you sure thats really the question?" But were done no favor when a tightly focused answer helps us keep doing the same irrelevant things, and lets us continue making "progress" in the wrong direction—instead of getting us out of our rut.

Its ironic that the vast worldwide knowledge base of the Web is actually helping us stay stupid and uninformed, merely because we can now find the answer that we dont know better than to want—instead of finding the easiest portal to knowledge through a door marked, "Lets begin at the beginning." Theres the challenge: to build distance learning systems, knowledge-base search tools, and interactive help technologies that can help us find the trunk, and even the roots, as well as the leaves of the tree of knowledge.

How do you figure out what question is really the one most worth answering?