Ever been on a project where management has simply thrown engineers and resources at a problem? Instead of taking the time to learn and figure out what really needs to be done, poor engineering managers hope to overcome their ineptitude through the sheer force of numbers.
Many people apply that same thinking to getting information on the Internet: Surf long enough, and you will eventually stumble across the information you're looking for.
It's what I call the Monkey Boy strategy. It's related to the Million Monkey Hypothesis, which goes something like this: Given enough monkeys, they will ultimately produce the complete works of Shakespeare.
But now it's been proven that you can't make order out of chaos.
In case you missed the news, British researchers recently tested out the Million Monkey Hypothesis at the Paignton Zoo in England. They equipped six simians—residents of the zoo's monkey habitat—with a computer. Pitiably, the monkeys managed to bang out nothing but pure gibberish. One could argue that's no worse than the drivel some humans routinely churn out, but apparently this stuff was really bad.
"They pressed a lot of S's,"
Researcher Mike Phillips was quoted as saying in The New York Times. And, the monkeys really messed up the computer. (No further comment necessary.)
Former librarian Raya Fidel, a professor and head of the Center for Human Information Interaction at the University of Washington, is surely not a proponent of the Million Monkey Theory. Her research, meta-research actually, involves gathering information on how people gather information and learn. Her goal: Improve the process. We interviewed her for our B.M.O.C. column in this issue (page 22).
She acknowledges that the web can be a terrible place to search for information, and that many people have a basic misunderstanding of what is necessary to get good results. Fortunately, she says that the engineers she has observed typically approach their information search in a more systematic way. Consequently, they waste less time and get better results than the average person.
What Fidel learns about how engineers gather information and learn will be used to design better systems and tools for searching the web, and designing websites and search engines. The goal: Help people learn before they leap.
Hear that, Monkey Boys?