Technology, 'satisficing' and inefficiency

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Human being settle. Not settle, as in "contents may settle during shipping," although that does happen with age. I mean settle in the sense of "make do." When given a chance, we almost always pick the adequate option over the optimal solution. The cognitive psychology word for this quirk of human nature is "satisficing" -- a mashup of satisfy and suffice.

The rise in popularity of MP3s is a great example. MP3s are small, easily downloadable music files. But they are rendered compact by the extraction of music data. So, MP3 music is not great quality music -- it loses something in its translation. To audio purists, MP3s are hellspawn. They would rather listen to uncompressed digital audio tracks or pristine vinyl. But, the rest of us satisfice on MP3 because they are convenient and they'll do.

For other examples, think about your daily routines. We often do things -- wash dishes, do laundry, etc., in ways that are sometimes foolishly inefficient but are familiar and ingrained. When we do these things, we don't notice the inefficiency, but others see it immediately.

The notional grandfather

Think how you feel when you see a relative (perhaps a notional grandfather) get to in a browser by typing "" in the search box of the browser. You say, "You know, you could just type in the URL box and go right there, or you could make that a bookmark in your bookmark bar," and you think, perhaps smugly, "that is SO inefficient." But, your grandfather is just satisficing. And, despite your explanation, the next time you visit, he'll still be typing "" in the search box.

I bring this up because our tendency to satisfice can make us slow to adopt new technology or tools. For example, if you spend any time browsing the web and reading news stories and blog posts from favourite sites, you should probably be using RSS feeds and an RSS reader. That way, instead of you having to visit site after site, you can subscribe to those sites, and they will automatically send you notifications of new stories.

Year after year, in my teaching, I have shown students how to use RSS feeds. And, year after year, when I check later in the course, only a handful of students are using them. Why? Are they wilfully ignoring me? No. They are satisficing. Even though there is not a single downside to using RSS feeds, the comfortable habit of visiting site after site, day after day, trumps the effort of changing a satisfactory pattern.

I find the same thing when I try to introduce co-workers and friends to highly specialized software tools. Many people use Microsoft Word and Excel for tasks at which those tools are dreadful. Using Excel to create tables of text, for example, makes about as much sense as using a word processor as a calculating spreadsheet. Word, actually, isn't much better at it. Yet, folks satisfice on it instead of learning a specific tool (OmniOutliner, for example) that is precisely the right tool for handling textual tables and outlines.

The Henkel knife vs. the Swiss Army knife

Using Word to draft short pieces of texts or blog posts is like using a sack of hammers to kill a gnat. But, many people fire up Word no matter the writing task, even though brilliantly simple and far more modern text editors (Notational Velocity comes to mind) are far more tuned to the specific task. It's often better to use a beautifully crafted Henkel knife, tuned to a specific purpose, than trying to use a Swiss Army knife that is jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

Why am I pointing this out? Because satisficing, by its very nature, makes us less efficient and less willing to try new tools. And that's a shame. A lot of the struggles many of us face day-to-day -- keeping track of stories we've read, documents we need to track, notes we've made -- can be solved, or managed using simple software tools that can replace the cumbersome "I'll just make folders for all this stuff" solutions.

Many of our project management headaches can be solved by software (Scrivener, for example) that makes long-form document tracking and assembly so easy that Word looks like a steam-powered dump truck beside an electric Smart car.

To quote the scientist in The Six Million Dollar Man, "we have the technology." Satisficing just gets in our way of using it.

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