Decision Support Systems

“If I listened long enough to you. I’d find a way, to believe that it’s all true” – Rod Stewart, warning us about Alexa.

Clippy. Goddamn Clippy from Microsoft Word circa 2000s. That’s the decision support tool that most people could probably identify, if you could convince them to understand what a decision support system is.  No one likes Clippy. Clippy is not coming back. Good riddance, Clippy.

So, that out of the way, you’re actually surrounded by decision support systems. Did you get a rebate from your utility for your sprinkler controller, your thermostat, or your clothes washer? If so, you’ve probably got something that is providing decision support to you. You’ve got a tool that is encouraging conservation, via the reward of automation (and the rebate).  You’re smart enough to know you shouldn’t water your lawn when it rains, but when it involved pushing a button on your controller, it’s likely you didn’t bother. Your new smart sprinkler controller will do that automatically, unless you tell it to water anyway.  You know you don’t need AC when you’re at work, but who has time to turn if off on the way out the door?  Your smart thermostat will handle it, but again, you can tell it to cool the house anyway.  You’re still in control, when you choose to exert it. These are simple examples of effective and benign decision support systems that have quietly wormed their way into our lives.

What about the evil examples, though? Of course there are evil examples. Amazon, Google, Apple, Yahoo… they’re all providing you with friendly free decision support systems via ads in your browser. Quietly, they whisper that you should treat yourself. They show you that shiny new gizmo you considered last week, and point out that it’s on sale. These are also decision support systems, but clearly they’re not working for you. They’re working for the store. Maybe you’ve let it go even further, you get a ‘Geek Box’, a ‘Fashion shipment’, or some other fancy new name for the old Columbia House records scam. ‘If you don’t want it, just send it back’. Right. I would argue that the very worst form of decision support systems are masquerading as cable news networks.

What’s the proper emotion, then? Should we fear that we’re being manipulated by our technology, or should we embrace the future, where Siri, Alexa, or ‘Ok, Google’ gives us quick solutions to all our problems?  Yes.  Both of those things. First step, though, is being aware that we’re using these systems, and understanding how they affect our decisions. We need to make conscious decisions when we first encounter Decision Support Systems. We need to understand who they represent. What is their goal? Do we agree with these goals, and are they in our self-interest. Where are the costs being covered?  We need to establish dominance, however briefly, before we turn over even the smallest decision to the vagaries of automation and convenience.