Part 12. The Right Answer
Technologists always love to find the "right" answer to a problem, whether
the problem is a mathematical puzzle, a societal issue, or a simple application
of principles in their job assignment. There is a deep sense of pleasure that derives
from not only finding the "right" or "best" solution, but also
being able to certify that it is indeed the optimum answer by performing a rigorous
mathematical proof. Simply being able to logically prove that the answer is the
most correct and efficient one gives a person a sense of power, a sense of satisfaction
in having mastery over some small thing in life. It may be difficult to satisfy
customers or to keep order in one's social life, but at least the rules of mathematics
and the laws of physics are stable, reliable, and learnable. A person can at least
be master of their own knowledge.
However, translating this culture of "right" answers into the consumer
marketplace is difficult. First of all, there is the issue of competition. Somebody
else might have the "right" answer in their product as well; then the
struggle to make a profit boils down to keeping a signficant market share by offering
some incentive to the consumer: a lower price, nicer packaging, or some slick marketing.
Having the "right" answer is not a certain advantage, since other companies
can provide the "right" answer also. Often the competitor decides that
having the "right" answer is not worth the cost of doing so, and provides
a "bad" answer but packaged in a nice, appealing form. The question is
whether the consumer will purchase on the basis of "right" or on the basis
Here we get to the heart of the matter: most consumers are (sadly?) not technologists.
Particularly in the U.S., there is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and
overt bias against students who are avid proponents of getting "right"
answers. A student in the first ten grades of public school is likely to be ostracized
or even physically beaten if they are known as a "brain" or if they conform
to the official school policies of quietness, cleanliness, and obedience to authority.
Television and movie programs consistently represent scientists and engineers as
socially inept fools with one-track minds, producing anti-heroes or anti-role models
that subconsciously tell children: don't be smart, it's weird to be smart.
An entire generation has grown to adulthood under this cultural regime, and thus
today's decisionmakers are basically lacking in the technologist's zest and enthusiasm
for the "right" answer. Instead, they want the "easy" answer,
the "no-brainer," the generic "whatever everyone else is getting"
of the mass merchandiser. In this environment IBM, with its old-school "right
answer" culture, finds significant opposition in its attempts to sell superior
solutions. A culture of conformity and mediocrity has become the standard in the
consumer marketplace, a culture that considers McDonald's, Radio Shack, and Microsoft
as acceptable but sneers at IBM and classical music. The question is not whether
IBM has the "right" answers, but rather, does anybody care any more?
Most recent revision: January 24, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.