Can We Be Too Connected? A Harvard Scholar Explores Interoperability

If you’re fond of delicious ironies, as I am, there’s a new book that will leave you positively gorged. It’s called Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, and last week I got to speak with one of its authors, Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey.

The central irony that fascinates Palfrey and his co-author Urs Gasser, who directs the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, is that complex systems—especially those designed to support a high degree of interoperability—often bite back, achieving the reverse of what we intended. Think of the Challenger disaster as an example. The way NASA designed the shuttle system, more than 80 percent of the thrust required for liftoff came from the reusable solid rocket boosters, which consisted of four segments each (an arrangement that made it easier to refill the boosters with solid propellant between missions). Rubber O-rings between the segments were supposed to seal the joints and keep hot gas from escaping during launch. But January 28, 1986, was a very cold day at Cape Canaveral, and the O-rings turned out to be so brittle under those conditions they failed to hold the seal after ignition, allowing a gas leak that burned a hole in the main external fuel tank and destroyed the vehicle.

Put another way, one of the very components designed to make the shuttle components interoperable—so that NASA could refuel the boosters between missions and mix-and-match boosters and orbiters—turned out to be Challenger’s undoing.

I’ve been thinking about the unanticipated risks built into complex technological systems for a long time—ever since I wrote my MIT PhD thesis on technological disasters back in 1994. What I like about Interop is that it provides a new framework for thinking about these risks, one that’s been updated for the network-saturated world we live in today. When you hear the word “interoperability,” it’s usually in some context having to do with computing, such as document portability. For example, the spreadsheets you create in Google Docs will usually show up correctly when you export them to Microsoft Excel, because both companies have committed to a certain level of interoperability. But Palfrey and Gasser point out that thanks to the Internet, mobile networks, and other systems, interoperability issues pop up in many other areas of our daily lives, and have a big impact on our productivity, privacy, and safety.

In some situations, we’re frustrated by a lack of interoperability: don’t expect to plug your 110-volt U.S. laptop into a 220-volt outlet in Europe without dire consequences. In others, we’re endangered by what might seem to be excessive interoperability. To take a recent example, it was all too easy for hackers to connect to LinkedIn’s computer systems two weeks ago, steal 6.4 million customer passwords, post them to a Russian hacker forum, and invite the world to help decrypt them. At the moment, all of Europe seems to be in the grip of an interoperability problem. By adopting a common currency back in 1999, European politicians simplified commerce and boosted growth. But now it faces a cascading debt crisis as countries like Greece fail to adopt the kind of fiscal discipline required to sustain a currency union.

The central message of Interop is that interoperability can be dialed up or down, and that it’s up to business executives, government policymakers, and consumers—not just engineers—to think about how much interoperability is appropriate for each situation. The challenge, as Gasser and Palfrey put it in the book, is “creating better, more useful connectivity while simultaneously finding better ways to manage its inherent risks.” Palfrey also happens to be the chair of a controversial non-profit project called the Digital Public Library of America, which aims to increase interoperability between the digital collections of other institutions; our conversation ranged from air traffic control to nuclear power, the Euro Zone crisis, and the future of literature in a world where companies like Amazon and Apple get to decide where and how you can read the books you buy.

Wade Roush: Talk about the threads in your work at the Berkman Center that brought you and Urs Gassser to the point of writing this book.

John Palfrey: We started out with a really basic question seven or eight years ago, which was trying to make sure that the presumption that everyone had about higher levels of interoperability leading to more innovation was actually true. In policy and business discussions, people talk about interoperability like they do about motherhood and apple pie—as if everything is great. Generally that is the right approach, but it’s a more complicated topic than that. So we decided to dig into a bunch of case studies and use this framework to determine if there is a relationship between higher levels of interoperability and higher levels of innovation. And generally the answer came back yes.

Then the idea of interoperability got into our heads in an interesting way. We started to see interoperability issues everywhere, sometimes in the context of IT and sometimes with things that had nothing to do with IT, in areas as far-reaching as transportation and economics. Increasingly, we began to see larger social issues as related to this. What turned it into a book-length project was the combination of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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