March 22, 2008 - Phil Hodgen

Questions are harder than answers

I’ve been thinking about what I do and the age I am and the fact that what I used to really suck at I am really good at now, and the stuff I used to be really good at then, well, I’m still good at it but I can barely stand to do it sometimes.

I came out of law school in 1982 in the teeth of a recession. Like a normal person who has been an “A” student I knew how to study and get answers. So that’s what I did. Swarming over stuff through sheer hard work, determination, and rocket fuel (aka coffee) to get “the answer.” Whatever that was.

Funny thing. “The answer” isn’t really what was called for. Someone coming in and plopping themselves down on the couch in my office (I have a really comfortable couch) isn’t looking for an answer hidden deep inside the Internal Revenue Code. They think they want an answer. But they don’t. Really.

What do they want? Better questions. I think. Lawyers live in a world where they dole out answers for money. Lots of money, sometimes. But for me, answers are a dime a dozen. Any technician can come up with answers. Software already prepares tax returns way, way better than an unaided human could do it. I’m sure that software will be able to spit out international tax answers sooner rather than later.

Mr. Turing is going to visit tax law sooner or later. There is a certain logic to tax law. (Tax rules build over time in the same way that sediment accumulates at the bottom of a lake–one idea layered over a prior idea, with no overseer making sure it all makes sense. But at least there is SOME logic, however bad). The logic can be automated. It will be.

It’s an interesting perspective in that link. I think Kevin Kelly is right. The impact in law will be profound. The law business is ossified. Getting Turing’d will not only change the business, it will change the participants’ perception of who they are and what they do. For the better. The prevailing lawyer as pointy-headed professor/priest/Protector of the Sacred Chalice of Freedom attitude will go overboard. Thank God.

Getting Turing’d is dangerous for the people that I help, though. Going from a machete to a Tim Allen-sized chainsaw and you’re going to see more than a few inadvertent amputations. Garbage in, garbage out. So you can spit out answers — amazingly sophisticated answers — with trivial effort. So what? Are you answering the right question? Getting to the right question is a feat immune to being Turing’d, I’ll wager.

So that’s what’s happened to me. I’m better at the questions now, at 52. Clever answers aren’t what is needed. Finding the right questions? THAT is what’s needed.

Kevin Kelly has another essay in which he talks about cheap answers. The questions are vastly harder to get than the answers. Go to Google now and try to research some idea vaguely formed in your head. Hard, isn’t it? When Google is spitting back 4 million answers at you, there is only one thing you can do — ask a better question.

Questions are hard. Finding to the right questions usually seems to have little to do with technical stuff, and everything to do with stuff going on inside the humans involved. If you can talk about the stuff rattling around inside the brains of the humans — out loud, like a grown-up, principles before personalities — you’ve got it made.

The appropriate (and they are “appropriate”, not correct) answers (and there are usually a few answers rather than “the” answer) are usually self-evident and require rather less engineering than a technician fascinated with his own craft would like. The answer selected suits the people involved, and they know it.