Wednesday, March 5, 2008


You need to talk to someone at FooCorp about an account of yours. You call the customer service number. The system asks you for a bunch of magic numbers. You give them. Listen to the lovely on-hold music. Someone answers. Turns out you need to talk to the Quux department. So they patch you through. The Quux department asks you for the same bunch of numbers you just gave ...

No one likes explaining the same thing twice. Whenever this happens, I always say "I just gave you that number." It never helps.

What we call "intelligence" (natural or otherwise) comprises a large number of different abilities, some of them better understood than others. One simple ability, and one that you'd expect computerized systems to be very good at, is remembering what just happened.

Web interfaces got a lot smarter when cookies came into use, because page B had a way of knowing what you said on page A. Not only do you not have to retype information that both pages happened to need, but, slightly more subtly, page B could be tailored based on what happened on page A, or the last time you accessed page B, or any of a number of similar bits of history (cookies aren't the only technique for doing this, but they're often a good one).

This doesn't always work perfectly, but there are some fairly non-infuriating sites out there. And some infuriating ones as well.

The phone system I described isn't dumb because it's a phone system and not a web system. It's dumb because the Quux department is a separate organizational unit from the main switchboard and they don't talk to each other.

The same integration problem crops up when page A and page B belong to different units, or different organizations. The (at least potential) advantage of the web approach is that you can integrate the two together from the outside without either of them knowing that they're being integrated. This can be as simple as a browser plug-in that knows your phone number and makes it easy to fill it into a field marked "phone number".

In the phone case, the analog would be an automated agent that listened in to the conversation and spewed back the numbers that it overheard (or already knew) so you didn't have to. And maybe stayed on hold for you and called you back when it had gotten through. Since the web is inherently in computer-digestible form, the web has a natural advantage for this sort of thing.

When this kind of integration works, the system becomes smarter. That's not just a metaphor. A system with a better memory is smart for the same reason that a dolphin is smarter than a goldfish (or for one of the reasons, anyway).

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