Section 7.2. Informed Decisions


7.2. Informed Decisions

Let's say, for instance, Carol and Charles need a larger vehicle that can handle their growing family. Twin daughters are due in a couple of months. She's thinking minivan, but he suggests a Ford Explorer: the same family functionality with a much cooler look. Besides, their neighbor loves her 2004 Sport Trac, and she has three kids. Carol's almost convinced, but that evening, on impulse, she fires up her browser and starts Googling.

An hour later, Carol is making the following case to her husband:

  • SUVs have a much greater risk of rolling over in an accident than passenger cars and minivans, due to their higher center of gravity. In fact, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac is among the worst, with a 34% chance of rollover in a single vehicle crash.[*]

    [*] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/.

  • While rollovers affect only 3% of crashes, they account for 31% of fatalities.[]

    ] Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, http://www.saferoads.org.

  • []

    ] CDC National Center for Health Statistics, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/.

  • [§]

    [§] Autobytel, http://www.autobytel.com/.

Carol notes that lower insurance rates, fuel consumption, and emissions make the minivans better on both the pocketbook and the environment. And that's not all. Carol is also armed with a slew of comparative data about the Sienna and Odyssey: expert and customer reviews, popularity rankings, standard and optional equipment specifications, photos, videos, and pricing details. She's even requested a quote for a Sienna. Carol explains that this decision is really all about safety, and ultimately, Charles agrees.

This may turn out to be one of the most important decisions of their lives. And it was influenced by the availability and power of the Internet. If faced with the prospect of a trip to the local library, Carol may have gone with her husband's original suggestion. After all, we know accessibility is "the single most important variable governing the use of information."[*] In the spirit of our tribal ancestors, we absorb most of our information passively and rely on who we know for much of what we know. Search can be an integral part of the decision-making process. What we find influences what we do. But the first step is deciding to search, and the smallest of barriers will deter us. The primacy of accessibility is among the firmest ties that bind our rationality. We trust the informal gossip of the grapevine without seeking the analysis of experts. And our source bias feeds our anchoring, memorability, and confirmation bias to further tangle our judgment.

[*] "Information Needs for Management Decision-Making." Records Management Quarterly. October 1993, p.15.

For all these reasons, the Internet offers us the power to make better decisions. We can quickly and easily step outside the circle of family, friends, and co-workers, in search of independent wisdom and collective intelligence. The diversity of sources, the volume of data, and the ease of access are unprecedented. We have the world at our fingertips. Of course, the Internet is not without its own prejudice. A great deal of scholarly, published, and printed content is not yet accessible. This has real impact, even in the relatively rigorous realm of scientific publishing, where online articles are cited 4.5 times more often than offline articles.[] The Internet favors information thats free and digital. And, search engines introduce their own unique and often invisible dispositions. Google, for instance, employs a trade-secret, multi-algorithmic solution that favors linguistic precision and link popularity, relying on exact matches of keywords in content and links rather than subject-oriented metadata or conceptual pattern matching. And, of course, Google's answers are intertwingled with the business of advertising in a delicate and sometimes uncomfortable dance between push and pull.

[] "Online or Invisible?" by Steve Lawrence (2001).

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