16 January 2006

Why can't we all agree?

Do you have wallet hip? You know, it's when your wallet turns into this little furry monster, leaking punchcards and credit-card receipts, and suddenly your center of gravity has shifted. Subtly and definitely shifted. As my sweetie asks, why can't all these people agree on a standard, some little magical card that both advertises selected products and screens out other ads, giving you discounts (which you could even base on frequency of patronage, etc.). Why can't I flash my card at any thrift store, CD emporium, or coffee shop in town and have the same thing happen every time?

And then there's using your credit or debit card to buy things. About half the time, just after you have swiped your card, you are instructed -- often by the cashier -- to touch the Cancel button if you want to continue to process the transaction as a credit card charge. Huh? We have only been buying groceries with credit cards for several years now (look at our collective debt load, after all) -- are we still so uncomfortable with the process that we must pretend to cancel every transaction to complete it?

When I was a technical writer I got sent to a fabulous, life-changing conference in Amsterdam. It was just before 9/11, just before the bubble burst. I zeroed in on what I thought was the greatest key to the technologies I was interested in: metadata. If that term sounds like a bunch of techno-gobbledygook, it is so much cooler, believe me. Metadata helps you key everything to everything else. I have this sort of structural vision of everything that begs for a universal index, a map. That's what metadata can really give you. You start describing everything, and try to organize it so that it refers to other related things, and you get cool networks and patterns and connections as a result. At the conference I was wowed by a student designer's metadata-indexed website that represented the ideas in "space." Someone did this in a clever way with this site, as an example: www.music-map.com. Put it another way, metadata is what makes some sites turn up on more search engines. If you index your data, you can describe and reference it in ways that allow you or others to discover new connections between your data and related data without having to make them yourself. Capisce?

All I'm asking is why isn't everything bluetooth now? Why can't we all just agree on a few some standards here? It's all about privacy, I know. But what if we developed the technology so that we could make more choices about how much information we wanted to trade with our community's merchants? What if the choices were in the consumers' hands, not just the merchants'? Our privacy could still be our own, but we could still participate willingly in the marketplace this way. What if consumers had a way to tell the merchants how they think those credit card machines should work -- every time, across the board, from Tallahassee to Tacoma?

But as long as we continually yield to the impulse to drive around in our warm insulated car-cocoons by ourselves during so much of our free time, and to take what's spooned out to us at prime time, perhaps we're less likely to want to make these kinds of choices, less interested in being bothered by another poll, less interested in another request for more taboo information about money and age. Less interested in what metadata can do for us.

Standards, schmandards, says Joe at the corner bar. We don't need no stinkin' standards. Standards is why you get those made-up girls stealing your credit card and your whole identity when you go to buy your wife her annual birthday present at the mall. Because all you are is a bunch of numbers in a computer. And someone can take your numbers and do whatever they want with them -- all because of standards.

But a girl has to dream.