Wish List:
Ten Inventions, Some More Serious Than Others

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520


Version of 20 October 2001.
7000 words.

Copyright 2001 by Phil Agre. You are welcome to forward this article in electronic form to anyone for any noncommercial purpose.

Please send me URL's for products or publications by serious people who have invented any of my wish-list items for real, or at least made good progress in that direction. I'll gather and post them.


Being an engineer means trying to change the world. It's a kind of imagination, working back and forth between the world as it is and the world that new inventions are making possible. Most engineers, I suspect, invent several devices in their heads every week, and for several years I've jotted down a note every time such an invention has come into my own head. I find these notes comforting. They mitigate life's annoyances, they stand a dim chance of causing the device I'm imagining to actually get built, and they invite discussion: what need does the device really address, why hasn't that need been addressed in some other way, and what does the fact that we're even talking about it say about the way we imagine the world? Things become imaginable at particular places and times, and I want to understand why.

So here are ten notes about things I've invented in my head and that I want someone else to invent for real. Some are more serious than others.


(1) Personal Access Guide.

You are probably familiar with the Access Guides: tourist guidebooks that are laid out geographically, with maps and numbered, color-coded paragraphs. They are famous as an advance in information design; they address the question "what's around me?". What the world needs is a Personal Access Guide (with apologies to Richard Saul Wurman, who invented the Access Guides, and HarperCollins, who own the Access Guide trademark). Imagine geographic information systems (GIS) merging with digital libraries and online payment systems to produce a marketplace for geocoded information packages. We actually have a project in our department about the use of geographic digital libraries in college education , but I want to imagine the use of such systems in the consumer market.

Here is a scenario. You've moved to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is a big place. So you buy the basic Personal Access Guide platform, which runs on several platforms, and you buy the basic Los Angeles maps. Then you shop for Accessware. The local booksellers' association publishes a free Accessware guide to their members, so you download that. Likewise with the local museums. For restaurants, you buy an Accessware Zagat Guide. You also go to chowhound.com, where average Angelenos have been geocoding their restaurant recommendations; by poking them, you automatically download them into your personal guide. When you display all this stuff, it looks exactly like an Access Guide: maps, numbers, symbols, color-coded paragraphs, and everything else.

Your guide, like GIS systems generally, comes in layers: each of the Accessware modules you've purchased is a layer, and you can toggle which layers are visible at any given time. You can also group the layers, having for example a group for work-related information versus recreational stuff. Because an elaborate marketplace in Accessware has developed, you have hundreds of titles to choose from, and online booksellers let their customers post reviews of Accessware guides, just as with regular books now.

The range of likely Accessware publishers is unlimited. Newspapers will provide geographic annotations for every place they mention, including not just restaurant reviews but the places where events happen in their stories. That way, you can point someplace (or just go there) and ask the LA Times, "what has happened here?". Or the LA Times could repurpose years of its reporting into neat packages of Accessware, all quality-controlled for its continuing interest. The smaller pieces could fit into the Access Guide format; others might be called up through other interfaces, or perhaps you can click on the Access Guide entries to call up more complex documents.

You could use your Personal Access Guide either electronically or in paper form. For example, you could accumulate an electronic list of places you've been meaning to go, and then on Saturday morning you could call up all of the places in a certain neighborhood that you're interested in. The resulting map would suggest very graphically how to plan your day, where to park, where to get lunch, and so on. Or, having assembled your Personal Access Guide, you could print it out. The printed Access Guides as they now exist are a perfect shape for holding in one hand as you walk around, or (this being LA) to consult as you sit at a stoplight. If your hands are markedly larger or smaller than the norm, though, you could have your Access Guide printed in the optimal size, and all of the maps and descriptions would be laid out automatically from the content you've chosen. I personally get little value from the Access Guide descriptions of boutiques, but I would like to see more architectural entries, ethnic restaurants, used record stories, and historical places. Likewise, I am more likely to frequent some parts of town than others, so I'd like to calibrate my guidebook to provide more detail in those areas and less in the others. So to prepare my Personal Access Guide, I will mix up a salad of geocoded one-paragraph reviews from different sources, send the whole package to the printer, and get my guide by return mail.

The Personal Access Guide that you can assemble from other people's content will be limited, though. So perhaps you will market an Accessware module based on your own explorations of the city. Just capture a geocode for each place (you can grab them from other guides, or if you're actually standing there then you can grab a geocode out of the air through wireless location services), write up a paragraph on it, answer the half-dozen questions that the Accessware framework defines (whether it's a restaurant or a shop or park or whatever, its address and phone number, and so forth), and drop it into the right folder. When it's time to issue a new release, you just write yourself a little blurb, select the right menu entry, and your guide hits the market within fifty milliseconds.

What will it take to make this wish come true? A lot. First of all, a critical mass of people need to have the underlying platforms. That probably means computers and network connections that can handle nontrivial map files. These will be affordable within several years. We'll need standards, most of which are coming together. GIS and digital libraries are huge research areas. I don't know that anyone is working on the necessary geographic annotation standard, though. It's probably not a big technical stretch compared to the established GIS standards, but some issues are nontrivial: are the annotations based on latitude/longitude, street address, real estate parcel, or what? Someone probably needs to build and maintain a database that cross-indexes different ways of referring to a place, and that's not easy. Custom book printing, long-promised, will have to achieve sufficient scale. Mechanisms for selling digital content over the Internet will finally have to get working, and we'll have to figure out the piracy issues. Perhaps most Accessware will be produced on a public, nonprofit, volunteer, open-source, shareware, and/or loss-leader basis. Mechanisms for transferring content easily between different devices will have to get working.

Institutional issues will also arise. The publisher who defines the Accessware framework (or whatever it ends up being called) may have an incentive to close the market, or at least tilt it to favor their own content over content from other sources. An open-source Accessware framework (which would definitely be called something else) would be a great project, and could support a whole industry of products and services that support the resulting open standards. Privacy would be a significant issue, since marketers would certainly like to know who expresses an interest in what, and especially who actually goes where.

Once the basic framework gets established in the market, the potential for follow-on products and services is enormous. If you can grab a geocode for "here", wherever you happen to be, then you can walk through a city preparing annotations as you go. After eating a meal you can grab a geocode for the restaurant and type in a short review. A secondary market can arise to review, filter, and merge reviews from different sources. Someone can invent a device that lets a driver ask, "what's that bakery I just passed?", and cause a geocode for the place (or a small set of guesses) appear on their PDA to be reviewed later on. Geocodes can be linked to businesses' Web sites. A geocoded marketplace for apartment rentals would be an infinite improvement on the current system of street addresses in want ads. Maybe mass transit based on buses with fixed routes could be replaced by something more like shuttles for airport passengers or people with disabilities: small buses that are dynamically routed based on people's geocoded indications of where they are and where they want to go.

What would happen if everyone used such systems? Bad places would be driven out of business more quickly, and secrets would not remain secret as long. Good places would prosper instantly whether they could advertise or not. The general idea is that people would be matched with places more effectively. Maybe cities would reshuffle as people figure out where they want to live based on the stuff that's available in oneneighborhood versus another. People would no longer go looking for stuff in a certain place because of its reputation, because they would know ahead of time where they should look. Fewer trips would be wasted, and more people would call ahead to be certain that they could get what they wanted. Perhaps big signs would be less important for attracting people to places, and streets might become more presentable as a result. Wireless "signs" might interact with people through their devices rather than directly.

Now, this is a standard-issue tech fantasy. It posits perfect markets, open standards, universal adoption, and all of the other elements of a hundred technology fantasies that have failed to happen over the years. One problem is time: these things take longer than you expect to achieve critical mass. But the market pathologies of standards are also at fault, for example in the temptations to slant the standards in favor of one vendor's content, or to cram the whole thing with advertising. In spelling out the scenarios now, I hope I can increase, however infinitesimally, the chances that this sort of system will get established on an open basis.


(2) Real-time water quality indications at beaches.

My local beach, Santa Monica, routinely shows up in the annual LA Times lists as one of the most polluted beaches in the whole LA area. If Santa Monica, of all places, can't fix the sewage outflow pipe that makes its beaches unhealthy, what hope is there for water quality in the rest of the world? What we need is useable water. So imagine a buoy that continuously tests the water quality. With advances in sensors, it should be possible to automate the tests for bacteria, common pollutants, and so on. Electrical power would come from waves or solar panels. The water tests could be run weekly, daily, or continuously, as the technology allows. Then the results could be made available in several ways: by lights that are visible from the shore, by wireless communications to beachgoers' PDA's, and by wireless real-time updates of a Web site. The data on the Web site could then be the basis for a variety of derivative services, such as automatic rankings of beaches (whether for the current moment, averaged over the last month, or whatever), a subscription service, detailed environmental reports, alarms whenever certain measurements exceed safety margins, and so on.

Suppose these buoys could be manufactured and deployed for $5000 each. The state could deploy 100 of them along the coast. Private parties could deploy them to make the case for better management of storm-water runoff, or else to show vacationers how clean the town's beaches are compared to others. Over time, we could get used to seeing the invisible properties of the physical world. Just like we're accustomed to seeing the temperature by looking at a thermometer outside the kitchen window, we could get the air quality the same way. Admittedly not all problems can be solved in this way. People who care about indoor air quality, for example, tell me that it's still a mystery why buildings become "sick", so nobody can build a detector yet for bad indoor air. But hopefully as the expectation of environmental transparency becomes widespread, money will materialize to crank up the necessary research another notch or two.

Out of pure curiosity I'd also like a "thermometer" that tells me what is happening in the electromagnetic spectrum in a given place. By cooperating wirelessly with its fellow thermometers across the geographic region, it would subtract out radio stations and the like that are ubiquitous in the region, and it would then tell me about electromagnetic stuff that is specific to a particular place: wireless LAN, police radar gun, radioactive rocks in the ground, and so on. This device would obviously need a large library of pattern-detectors for action at different frequencies, but the library could be accumulated on the Internet on an open-source basis and distributed to the detectors automatically. The point here is not to hack the information that might be passing through the air, though if we can hack it then we might as well, since the bad guys will have been hacking it long ago. The point, rather, is almost artistic: to see the world more completely, and to appreciate the kinds of connections among people, machines, and organizations that society runs on.


(3) Self-diagnosing public address equipment.

Have you ever wondered why public address equipment is so flaky? It's amazingly common: large numbers of people will assemble for some event, but the event will be delayed or sabotaged because microphones and/or speakers and/or who-knows-what aren't working. Then you see the A/V people rush to trace wires, pull up duct tape, or tell people to use some other microphone. The same thing goes for image projectors, lighting, and much else. Having watched many A/V people frantically diagnose public address equipment, I often wished that the equipment would diagnose itself. Why can't every wire dynamically monitor itself and shine little red lights (or fail to shine little green lights) if no signal is passing through them? I don't just mean that they aren't getting any input, but that they can't persuade an internally generated test signal to pass from one end to the other. Why can't every microphone tell whether it is picking up any sound from the room? A device could emits occasional "bleeps" outside human hearing range, and any microphone or other component that fails to hear the bleeps would declare itself out of the loop. In short, if a component of an A/V system is not working, that fact should be readily visible to anyone.

A related problem concerns plugs. Do you know what the stupid symbols above the various jacks on the back of your computer mean? If so then you're in a small minority. Plugs should be like data types: each type of signal should have its own shape of plug, and the different plug-types should (1) be readily distinguishable from one another, (2) relate in some meaningful symbolic way to the type of signal they carry, (3) have a name that normal people can understand, (4) be physically impossible to plug into anything with which it is incompatible, and (5) be *visually* impossible to plug into anything with which it is incompatible. And by "type" I don't just mean the nature of the signal (e.g., audio versus video) but its meaning. So the headphone jack should look different from the audio-in jack, even though both carry audio signals. Even non-technical people have rats'-nests of wires going around their houses, and the management of these wires is a useability issue like any other. I do realize that Bluetooth et al are supposed to eliminate those wires, but like most people I'll believe that when I see it.

Analogous comments apply to the Internet. It's absurd that you have to call someone on the phone when you aren't getting enough bandwidth from your net connection, and it's downright archaic that the person has to physically come over to your house with diagnostic equipment to figure out what the problem is. The real hassle is that bandwidth problems caused by misconfigured routers are usually intermittent, and disappear in the presence of diagnostic equipment. So users have a choice between suffering silently and being written off as bandwidth hypochondriacs.

It follows that Internet gear should diagnose itself. The diagnosis should happen on each layer: routers should measure themselves, as should telnet and http connections. Because an Internet "connection" is a virtual construction, rather than existing at the IP layer, problems may only be visible at those higher levels. I realize that there's a world of complexity involved in interpreting the numbers that result, but all I'm talking about is automating the easy parts of interpretations that happen all the time. System administrators' beepers should be going off automatically when there's a problem, rather than waiting for users' uselessly vague reports. I realize that the industry has been talking about self-diagnosing network equipment for years. The fact is that self-diagnosis is not a reality in most users' lives.


(4) "Whatever happened to ...?"

If any new-economy business magazines are still solvent, they could do a public service with a regular feature evaluating the predictions that prominent consulting firms have issued. It could be the high- tech industry's way of improving on the useless "this day in history" features in regular newspapers. So, for example, we might learn that "Five years ago this month, Whatever-You-Wanna-Hear Consulting Group predicted that approximately 100,000,000 cars would have wireless Internet connections by now; in reality, the number is approximately 1,000". Or, "Ten years ago this month, Mouthpiece Associates predicted that annual sales of live chickens on the Internet by this year would top $47B annually; in reality, online sales of sentient poultry are approximately $12". Or, "In 1996, the founders of Cyberfad Systems predicted that by this year nearly all video games would be played over the Internet using VRML; in reality, well, you know what happened to that".

One purpose of these retrospective evaluations, of course, would be to mock the people who issued the absurd predictions. Certain consulting firms do have a reputation of reporting whatever ridiculous numbers are going to look good in their customers' business plans. Perhaps the retrospective evaluations will vindicate them. Of course they'll get some of their predictions wrong, but all reasonable people will be comforted if half of the optimistic-sounding predictions weren't optimistic enough. In any case, a more important purpose for retrospective evaluation is qualitative. The idea of evaluating people's track records is old and obvious. What we really want to know is their reasons. Let's match the detailed arguments behind the predictions against what really happened. Some predictions are true for the wrong reasons, and other predictions are way off even though major elements of their reasoning were surprisingly accurate. Patterns can emerge: perhaps some kinds of innovations turned out to be a lot harder than others, and the reasons are certain to be instructive. In the end, the issue isn't really the consulting firm itself. Imagination is collective property: consulting firms' predictions are a pure expression of the things that people find predictable at a given time and place. The great virtue of the past is that people didn't know what was going to happen; they were burdened by prejudices, but they were not burdened by much of the knowledge that burdens us. This is the greatest benefit of history: using the past to defamiliarize the present.


(5) Automatic evaluation of ISPs' spam-enforcement efficiency.

For years now, I have reported nearly every spam message to the host from which it was sent, as well as the hosts of the spammers' Web sites, the places they use as "Reply-to:" mail drops, and so forth. It's a nontrivial amount of work if you add it up over the years, and yet I have little idea how much good it does. Nor do I have a good sense of how effective various hosts are at controlling spam, except in the case of certain hosts in less affluent countries that are chronically unable or unwilling to keep a postmaster alias working, much less enforce TOS against repeat spammers. So it seems to me that we need an objective method of telling how good a job the various hosts are doing.

Let's focus on the easiest case: free e-mail services. For each of the services, let's write a script that creates a new account on that service. Then let's start sending fake spam. Create a few hundred accounts purely for the purposes of receiving spam, and create one account on each free e-mail service purely for the purpose of sending spam to the spam-receiving accounts. Then we'll set the whole thing in motion, spamming like mad between our artificial accounts without bothering anyone else. First we'll see which of the free e-mail services detects automatically that they're being used to send spam. Then we'll automatically generate some spam complaints and we'll see which sites continue to allow us to send spam. Then we'll post scores for each site, ranking them by a Spam Responsibility Index.

One problem with this plan is that it's probably illegal. So, to be clear, I'm not literally saying that I wish that someone would do it. It's a thought experiment. Still, it's interesting to speculate how one could get away with it. The necessary scripts would have to be run through offshore proxy servers. In the early days of the public Internet, many people assumed that such anonymity services would be a big business. But it hasn't happened, both because few people want them and because their operators end up getting sued. The world has turned out to be smaller than it seemed in the early days. Still, it's entertaining to imagine a world in which hackers know how to teleoperate complex operations like this one through many layers of indirection. We want to believe that the Internet has dark corners. Or at least we wanted to believe such things until recently.


(6) Consumer Reports for design.

My favorite magazine is Metropolis, which is an intelligent design magazine for designers. Recently a Metropolis editor started Dwell, a magazine that reinvents interior design from the perspective of capital-d Design, advocating the kind of minimalist modernism that designers are still enamored of. Dwell is good because it takes the whole worldview of Design and makes it practical for people who are designing their homes on real budgets. The next step, it seems to me, is a kind of Consumer Reports for design.

"Design" has various meanings. Consumer Reports is run by plastic- pocket-protector engineers, and for them "design" means technical things: measurable attributes of safety, efficiency, comfort, and all-around usefulness. And that's good. But we also need a Consumer Reports for the more artistic and creative problem-solving aspects of design, or perhaps a Consumer Reports that combines the two. So let's say I want to buy a car. I don't just want a car that gets good mileage and doesn't need its whole front end replaced if it hits a lamppost at 5mph. I also want a car that's well-designed. Anyone can look at a car and come up with a blurry gut sense of whether they like it or not. It's cool, or ugly, or whatever. But serious aesthetics has layers, and many people are now paying attention to the layers of aesthetic judgement that others have articulated before making choices of their own. So this suggests a magazine format. One month, for example, they might have a spread about coffee grinders, evaluating them for their aesthetics and innovation as well as their coffee- grinding efficacy. Another month they might cover lawn furniture or kitchen implements. People can start populating their homes with objects that are challenging and interesting, confident that they are getting the best stuff.

The challenge to magazine design is interesting as well. For example, Dwell had a good piece about sofas recently, showing you in detail why you really want to spend $1500 for one. But their nerve failed: the information design wasn't that great (not enough diagrams of how the sofas work inside, or how to really identify one kind of sofa versus another), and they only showed a sample of sofas rather than scanning the market to get a broad range of what's out there. As a serious design magazine, they would be mortified to get into Consumer Reports' world of plastic-pocket-protector charts. But surely there is an artful way to present similar information, perhaps without the whole hyper-scientific attitude of Consumer Reports but still with a respect for information and its role in people's decisions about how to spend their money.

Another challenge would be telling people where to get the stuff. Where Consumer Reports deals in goods that you can buy at Target, serious design is generally distributed through narrower channels. You can pay a lot of money for a designer garlic press, and the markup from a design shop in Soho puts a lot of otherwise good stuff outside most people's price ranges. The design houses that produce this design-intensive gear are in a real fix: if they distribute their stuff through other channels, perhaps over the Internet, then they will alienate the boutiques. This is where the new magazine comes in: acting as an advocate for efficient distribution. It's the new equivalent of the Whole Earth Catalog: access not to tools but to design. The goal would be to democratize good design, thus creating pressure for good design even at the mass consumer level.


(7) Daily reports on party lines.

We associate the phrase "party line" with communists, and particularly with the CPUSA during the Depression when communists in the US operated openly. It was often remarked that the party line could change overnight, and that the deepest convictions of one's communist acquaintances would change along with them. But that phenomenon is hardly unique to the communists, and I am sure that dedicated partisans of both major political parties in the United States can reel off examples where partisans of the other party started arguing the opposite of their former positions once the government changed hands earlier this year. The urgency of filling judicial vacancies is an often-cited example. My view is that most of these partisans are unaware of their inconsistency: their goal is to further the tactical goals of their party, and they evaluate the arguments that they receive from their leaders purely in those terms.

I suspect that few citizens, partisan or not, realize the depth to which daily political conversation is organized by party lines. Many people repeat party lines unawares, having heard them indirectly from pundits or friends who listen to pundits. A well-propagated party line becomes almost subliminal, like cognitive wallpaper; it emanates comes from so many sources that we can hardly imagine a world without it. But then the sun goes down and comes up again, and now the world is papered with a different party line, again seeming so natural and ordinary that it hardly occurs to anyone to wonder where it came from.

This suggests that the world would benefit from an explicit system for tracking party lines. I'm thinking of something like Newsweek's "conventional wisdom watch", except that we'd make clearer that we intend it ironically, as a way to deprogram ourselves, and not as a weathervane for those who live in fear of falling out of fashion. "Party line watch" would warn people, in a gently mocking way: here are today's party lines, watch out for them. That way, whenever a pundit uttered a party line everyone would stop and realize: that person is not reporting a personal opinion but following a line.

You might be wondering where our knowledge of the party line would come from. Surely it's a matter of guesswork? Not at all. When I speak of the party line, it's not a loose figure of speech. The major parties in the United States really do issue party lines. If you are a party activist then you can go to a Web site and sign up for it. It will say things like, "the President's visit to the coast is going tremendously; enthusiasm is building for his tax proposals; his comments in Capital City were well-received by large crowds; support was particularly strong for his principled and courageous assertion that we have begun a new day in America; now is the time to act so that we can bring fairness and reason to a system that has stood in the way of progress". Those exact phrases may not appear in pundits' columns the next morning, but paraphrases of them regularly do, often woven in with other themes that were already in the air.

The point is not that pundits are hacks who grind out what they are told, but rather that they remain in good standing with their network of political partisans only if they stay on side. Every pundit has a broad choice of raw material every day from a variety of partisan sources. But a disciplined political movement will have so many pundits that its party line will get the saturation exposure it needs, in the paradoxical way these things work, to operate on people subliminally. This is especially true for political "strategies" (to use the word the professionals use instead of "line") that are formulated and spread by partisan think tanks, which are nothing but nonprofit public relations firms that exist to install certain thoughts in the minds of targeted segments of the population. Accordingly, a thorough "party line watch" would include not only the tactical day-by-day messages of the parties but the longer-term messages that are being pushed by other organized interests. This would include the "public affairs" and "issue management" consulting firms that very quietly orchestrate propaganda initiatives on behalf of their paying customers. These interest-group messages may not be issued as daily memos to followers, but it should not be hard for the political junkies in Washington to capture them for the rest of us.

Now, this proposal does have a downside. In a democratic society, it is reasonable for groups of people to organize their political strategies in private. The government cannot compel a political organization to turn over its membership lists, for example. The phenomenon of people repeating party lines is, in a sense, the way democracy ought to work. That's how we know that parties are healthy and effective: when people identify so strongly with their party's principles that they accept the party's voice as continuous with their own. A real democrat cannot argue that people who repeat a party line are ipso facto being coerced or brainwashed, since democrats believe that people are capable of participating in the political process that governs them. That's what democracy is, as opposed to the political process being run by experts or an aristocratic elite. This is not to say that we should always accept people's repetition of party lines as representing their best interests; if the party line consistently fails to make logical sense, for example, then we have a case that *something* is wrong, even if we do not know what. Even so, it is reasonable for political movements to build the infrastructures they need to mobilize their partisans.

The problem with party lines, then, does not arise from the simple fact that people repeat them, but rather from the position of the independent or undecided citizens who don't realize how orchestrated the debates around them have become. The case for revealing party lines does not arise from their secrecy as such, but rather from the overwhelming capacity of the largest political parties to colonize the institutions of public debate, and to give them a character that is completely different from what they claim to be. I'm not saying that political parties should be compelled to disclose their party lines; such a proposal would clearly be unworkable as well as wrong. A "party line watch" would only work if it was informal and ironic, and done not in a corrosive spirit but in the name of getting people to lighten up.


(8) Online music sites that tell you how long each recording is.

In the old days, we knew how long a record was. Singles on 45s were three minutes long with a similar B-side on the back; 33rpm records were 20-25 minutes on a side. With the advent of CD's, however, things changed. A CD can be as long as 80 minutes, but many CD's were simply copied from LP's. As a result, a CD can go anywhere from under a half-hour (e.g., Nick Drake's otherwise commendable "Pink Moon") to the full 80 minutes (many anthologies). Some classic records have been remastered (whatever that really means in practice) and augmented with outtakes and live recordings; Lucinda Williams' transcendent self-titled record has been given this treatment to great effect. But then a somewhat similar record, Rosanne Cash's "Interiors", feels complete at 34 minutes. So it's not always about quantity; not that anyone ever said it was. Even so, I do wish that online music sites would tell us how long each record is. Record reviews often post warnings about short recordings, and in many cases quantity matters quite a bit: with an anthology, for example, I generally want to hear a broader sample of whatever the anthology is claiming to survey. Lists of the tracks are often a decent substitute, especially in genres where the lengths of the tracks are predictable, but in many genres that's not the case. So let's have freedom of information.


(9) Shopping basket price comparison for online commerce sites.

While we're talking about online commerce, price comparison sites like mysimon.com (which can surely find a better name now that so many names have been abandoned by other dot-coms) only compare a single item at a time. The next step, it seems to me, would be to feed the URL for your Amazon.com shopping basket into a Web site that sends the whole lot to different sites and produces quotes on whatever subsets of the goods each site has available. The correct interface for this is not obvious, but we'll figure it out.


(10) A book that explains the adult world to children.

The last item on my wish list is not related to technology, but it's more important than any of them. People become the adults they are largely because of the childhoods they had, and a major problem with childhood is that nobody tells you what's going on. I'm not talking so much about secrets; it's reasonable that certain matters are kept away from children who could never understand them, or who would inevitably blow them out of proportion. Rather, I'm talking about the ordinary adult activities that children are not socialized into until, too suddenly, they become adults. For the most part, children get dragged from one place to the next, staring into space as their parent engage in one boring grown-up deal after another. Children get scolded when they stray from these scripts, even though they've rarely been told what the scripts are.

What we need, then, is a cultural practice of explaining to kids what's going on and how it works, and scaffolding the kids' own involvement in it to the greatest practical extent. On a simple level this can look like, "okay, this evening we're going to cook dinner, and then our friends are coming over, and we'll talk and play for a while, then we'll eat, and you'll head up to bed, and we'll have boring grown-up conversations downstairs". On a more complicated level, it means having children do as many social things as possible: ordering their own meals in the restaurant rather than having their parents order for them, leading the way to a familiar location rather than being dragged there, doing the talking when checking out the groceries at the supermarket, writing their own invitations to their birthday party, and so on. People don't often put their kids on the front lines of these social rituals, for the simple reason that the kids don't know how. The hard part, finding the dynamically adaptive middle ground between dragging them passively around and throwing them in the deep end, is what psychologists call scaffolding, or what Vygotsky called the "zone of proximal development". (See Mike Cole's book, "Cultural Psychology". In fact scaffolding and zone of proximal development are not quite the same idea, but the difference doesn't matter here.) Scaffolding means finding the exact boundary of what the kids are able to do, and hanging around the edges to pick up the slack when they reach the current limits of their skills.

Of course, lots of scaffolding happens spontaneously. Children would never grow up otherwise. I don't mean to criticize parents; they generally mean well and do the best they can. The problem is in the culture, and inherent in the very situation of being a grown-up who has forgotten what it's like to be a child. I want us to invent things that insert children more fully into the grown-up world by ramping up the scaffolding exponentially. I am a big believer in how-to manuals, and I would like to see how-to manuals that explain the grown-up social world to children. This is hard, not least because most grown-ups cannot themselves explain many of the social rituals they engage in, except perhaps when they are right in the middle of them. I am constantly amazed at the basic facts about the social world that have never been written down, and I have expressed that amazement by writing down as many of the rules of my own professional world as I have been able to articulate. I have probably written down a hundred pages of material that is crucial to professional success but that is rarely taught, if ever, and I am certain that I have only scratched the surface.

The material that needs explaining to kids is endless. Where is the how-to that explains to a child how to organize a party? Or how to negotiate for something they want? What listening is (as opposed to just following orders) and why it's a good idea (and not just a sign of obedience)? How to identify an issue that they care about, articulate it in a way that others can understand, and then talk to all the others who care about it as well? How to understand someone else's agenda as part of convincing them to do what you want? How grown-ups find jobs? How grown-ups manage their money? Some of these skills are useful immediately in a child's life, and others are useful because they make grown-ups and grown-up situations intelligible. (Some books do exist that are at least similar to what I'm talking about, especially in the area of conflict resolution; see for example Myrna B. Shure and Theresa Foy Digeronimo, Raising a Thinking Child: Help Your Young Child to Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along With Others, Holt, 1994.)

Why is this important? Vygotsky suggests that our cognitive machinery originates in the social situations of childhood. We internalize those patterns of social interaction and turn them into patterns of thinking. If we grow up in a settled routine of authoritarian interactions, for example, then authoritarianism will be ingrained in our thought patterns. If we go around being bored, dragged through situations that nobody explains to us, then that same boredom and meaninglessness will be the outer horizon of our consciousness for the rest of our lives. Either we'll drift around in mindless conformity to our surroundings or we'll engage in rebellions without the slightest capacity to comprehend the world that we are rebelling against. In either case we will be completely ill-suited for life in a democracy, or for life in a dynamic market economy for that matter.

I'm not against self-expression and play; I'm not in favor of pushing children into adult roles before their time. There is a difference between practicing adult roles and actually having responsibility for putting food on the table. Likewise there is a difference between understanding the adult world and actually having to live in it. As autonomous childhood cultures die out, though, it seems to me that we are moving into the worst of worlds: childhoods crammed with highly structured activities that, however didactic their intent, afford little any room for genuine initiative and little scaffolding for children's structuring their lives for themselves.

You can see this in a lot of college students, who might be good at working in structured settings but who become irretrievably lost in situations that are not adequately structured by others. They panic. They become paranoid. They rebel. What am I supposed to do? What are the rules? How am I being evaluated? Give me feedback so I know how I'm doing! Then they take revenge on the end-of-term course evaluations. It's sad to watch. And the system reinforces it by trusting the course evaluations (which provide numbers and so must be objective) instead of evaluating a course by the quality of the work that students do. Incredible amounts of human potential go to waste, and the system's inherent recoil finishes off those few who try to do anything about it. As we revert from the era of mindless liberation to the era of mindless conformity, perhaps we can take advantage of this brief moment of transition to escape the cycle of cluelessness that stifles our culture. It's a slim hope, but it's the hope we've got right now.