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Pick a Straw . . .
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 1999

  The Navigator

This article contains links which take you outside washingtonpost.com.

Can the Internet really help us make decisions? More and more Web sites are popping up to guide us through the rocky rapids of decision-making. Is this good or bad? You decide.

One of the most intriguing sites belongs to PersonaLogic, a San Diego-based company owned by America Online. AOL is using the company's techniques throughout its service.

On the PersonaLogic Web site, people can employ its e-winnowing system to find the right desktop computer, the perfect cruise or the most romantic evening.

It's a simple process. Suppose you're in the market for a child-friendly dog. The sites lists about 160 different kinds of canines – their habits, traits and requirements. You answer a series of questions. Do you want Fido to be high-energy or low? Large or small or in-between? Eventually your quest is boiled down to a few choices and all along the way you can learn about pets.

For the most part, says PersonaLogic president Stephen Tomlin, 37, the company is focusing on the Big Decisions – what car to buy, what college to attend, what city to live in. "Anything that's complicated," Tomlin says.

Like whom to marry?

Not that complicated, he says. Yet. But he has thought about it.

On one hand, this could be a glorious use of technology, helping folks find solutions through logical problem-solving methods – in the same way computers help us solve math equations and logistical dilemmas.

But decision-making by machine could also lead us down some dark paths, wrecking our reasoning abilities and allowing us to take less responsibility.

Other companies are experimenting with decision-making technology.

I paid a visit to Doctor Decision, a page in the city-guide section of Microsoft.com, known as Sidewalk, where I got a dose of decisiveness, Microsoft-style. The questions are more frivolous than the PersonaLogic site, but I took the eight-question test and waited for the results. The prescription: Try out several Sidewalk guides – for entertainment, gifts, restaurants and computers.

Microsoft mostly uses regular old search-engine tactics in its guides, including the much- ballyhooed CarPoint and HomeAdvisor. Like, what price are you willing to pay and what color do you have in mind?

There is at least one serious use of decision-making technology on the Internet: a well-thought-out site created for military personnel by the Department of Defense. At the Breast Cancer Decision Guide, interactive consultations are available for women and men who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and for anyone who is concerned about them.

Stephen Tomlin believes that decision-guiding Web sites are "supporting the internal decision-making process," not detracting from it.

When you've got a choice to make, he says, "you talk to people you trust – your brother-in-law, for instance." You get his advice, Tomlin says, you do your homework and you make a decision. The new technology works exactly the same way.

And if you don't have a brother-in-law? Maybe you should help your sister decide to take a romantic cruise.

Join Linton Weeks on Navigator – Live today, 2 p.m. Eastern at Washingtonpost.com. His guest will be Cindy Simons Bennett, president of Child of My Dreams (www.childofmydreams.com) to answer questions about infertility, adoption and the Internet.


   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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