Saturday, August 25, 2007

Squirrels Don't Need to Remember

As I was finishing off my post on Google, I came across an ad in InformationWeek that demonstrates the we-know-better attitude I was discussing in my post. The ad was striking not only because it is such an extreme example of what I was discussing, but for the glaring fallacy of its argument.

The ad said, in large letters:

Squirrels don't remember where they hide their nuts.

Then in smaller print:

They're not looking in the right places for what they need.
But you can. With proven information management software from SAS.

Say what!?! There are so many things wrong with the logic here it is hard to know where to being. Yeah, yeah, yeah... it's just marketing so you aren't supposed to think, you are supposed to feel. But it feels all wrong.

First off, I'm not sure if squirrels remember where they hide their nuts or not. After a short bit of scrounging around the web (using Google, of course, although my wife would use Yahoo! -- the results are essentially the same) it seems that naturalists and biologists are agreed that they do not remember. But at the same time, they don't need to remember because they use their sense of smell to find the nuts, whether they are the nuts they buried or another squirrel set aside. (Hey! That's not a half bad analogy for search itself...)

And I don't know about you, but where I live I don't see a lot of squirrels dieing of hunger. In fact, they seem to be flourishing without the assistance of any "proven nut management" software. So they have no problem "not looking in the right places."

The more you think about it, the worse it gets. If you follow the URL listed in the ad they come right out and say it:

In a complex business world, the information you need to be successful may be hidden in the most improbable places. Unlike the squirrel, however, you don’t have time to forage for answers.
What is this fear of having to spend five minutes finding something? Now, I know SAS is not advertising a search solution, they are selling business analytics. But the argument they make is the same, and the argument against it is also identical -- if I know what I will need to know, I can safely structure my content to fit the future answer (and there are cases where this is the case: budgetary information, business contacts, the output of standard procedures); but if I don't know in advance, messy information is not made less messy by applying artificial filters and strictures on its storage and access.

I'm not a squirrel, but there are plenty of times I'm looking for nuggets of information and with a decent search engine and access to the data (i.e. a "good sense of smell"), I can find it. There are also plenty of times I've been trying to get a nugget out of a "proven information management" system, that confounds my best efforts to answer the unnecessarily complex or irrelevant questions it insists on asking before giving me its "best answer".

Squirrels don't need to remember. And neither, thank goodness, do I.

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