Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Satisficing" Is Not a Dirty Word

Another one of my pet peeves is people who complain about students and other information-seekers “satisficing”—looking for information that is just good enough, rather than for the best information. A related pet peeve recently came up on PUBLIB (don't ask why I lurk on PUBLIB; there was a reason at the time I signed up for it, but now it's mostly for amusement value), when someone called easily searchable digital information systems a “prop” that hinders the development of thinking and reasoning skills.

While these complaints have a certain degree of merit to them, they ignore a couple of important economic principles. (Humor me here; my undergrad background is in the social sciences.) We all have a limited amount of time, money, energy, etc., to get through our days, and we have to make rational decisions about how to “economize” those things—how to use them most efficiently to achieve the most we can based on our constraints. This means we can't have it all—things that are time-consuming might not be expensive monetarily, but they're “expensive” in terms of another scarce quantity: time. Home-cooked “slow food” meals might not cost more than take-out, but an hour spent preparing a slow food meal is an hour that you can't spend, say, mowing the grass or sleeping or doing other things that you need to accomplish. Information is no different: an hour spent digging through a pile of poorly organized information trying to find the piece that is needed is an hour that a student can't spend writing the paper he needs to write, or doing homework for his other classes, or having a life outside of school. Yes, sometimes it's important for students to take the time and effort to really dig in and learn the structure of the literature in an area, to see who the big names are and what they're arguing, to learn the contours of the discourse . . . and sometimes they just need to find a piece of information quickly and get on with the rest of their lives. I suspect that this is doubly true of public library patrons, who generally don't feel the need to engage with a broad swathe of human knowledge the way students should. So give the people what they want already and don't make them feel guilty for having other things in their lives that are more important to them than conducting the best information search possible! Unless you live up to every other field's standards of perfection: if you eat only home-cooked healthy meals, exercise for the recommended 30 minutes per day, sleep for the recommended 8 hours per night, maintain your home in a state of Martha Stewart-like perfection, check the air pressure in your tires every time you gas up your car....

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