When my son was in grade school, a Chinese gymnast broke her neck and was paralyzed. He asked my wife about this tragedy, and she tried to gently explain to him what had happened because she thought he was upset. What he really wanted was a communication along the spinal column, how it might be disrupted and how that disruption could be permanent.
We ask questions for many reasons, and some questions are better than others. The impact of deep questions, carefully phrased, can be insight (as with Zen questions). I suspect that better questions are being lost because our technology delivers ready answers. They come to us too easily and too narrowly. And we may be sacrificing the best of what questions provide us as individuals and as a culture because of this.
A simple example of pre-Internet versus now: In pursuit of an answer, I would retrieve a book from the library and spot intriguing titles on the same shelf–or maybe even in an entirely different section as I made the trip to get the book. Today, I just download the book I’m looking for onto my e-reader, with no distractions and no questions.
Or, I might have asked the question friends, face-to-face. Their interest level would tell me if it was a good question and often increase my interest. Sometimes, the question would need clarification, making it sharper. Or, in real time, with body language, tone of voice and other cues that are lost in virtual space, the initial question would spawn other, better, deeper questions. And all involved would suddenly be invested in finding the answers.
As an aside, good questions can often engender participation and commitment. In fact leaders will often use questions as a way to transfer ownership of an idea or obligation. Telling a person to do something has a different effect from having the person conclude that they must do something, even if the action for each is identical.
The social aspects of questions (remember the Socratic method?) are difficult to replicate in online environments.
It gets worse because context is lost. When we ask questions alone and in isolation, we can be more easily satisfied with cheap and incomplete answers. Nothing gets challenged and we may even accept outright lies that fit in with preconceived notions. Outside views may never reach us.
When I say the answers are cheap that is literally true. Consider the days when understanding what customers care about involved surveys and focus groups–expensive propositions that took a long time to provide information. Today much of the data that we are interested in already exists on the Web. Sometimes it is there explicitly, available upon request. Sometimes it is there thanks to the use of tools such as data mining tools. We even see that on a popular level mash ups can pull together disparate data sources to create information that is of value to us. (For instance, showing on a map where high crime areas are.) There is a lot of good that can come out of this, but it also makes the level of commitment and thought that went into surveys is gone. Attention and care usually rise if more money is in play. Garbage in, garbage out, anyone?
A deeper concern is my suspicion that questions delayed and elaborated upon help us to develop curiosity. And curiosity is one of the great tools of creativity and discover.
This is a suspicion only. It could be that the wide availability of answers allows people to avoid frustration and move more quickly to deeper questions that open up curiosity. It would be interesting to see if we could devise a way to measure the curiosity quotient of our society and see how the environment (including tools) impact it.
But whether curiosity is being weakened or strengthened, it is worth exploring ways that our information environment might be used to help us find and disseminate really good questions. This is what I’ll explore in my next entry.