Can We Be Too Connected? A Harvard Scholar Explores Interoperability

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two types of problems that we think interoperability speaks to. One is the development of business models where interoperability is central—Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all companies where an interoperability strategy is essential to corporate success. Second, many of the large social issues we are seeking to address—and here I would mention climate change and healthcare—have interoperability issues buried within them. Interoperability at first sounds like a really geeky, IT-specific topic, but we felt that this was a conversation that mattered to people in many aspects of business and politics. So we wrote this book for people who are trying to determine business strategy in a broad sense, and technology policy in a broad sense. It’s a sleeper topic at first, but once you see its applications it can become a really useful theory.

WR: Before we dive into that theory, I wanted to ask you to lay out some examples of interoperability working well, and interoperability gone bad.

John Palfrey, co-author of Interop. Photo by Asia Kepka.

JP: That’s a great question, because at the outset we realized that interoperability is not a one-size-fits-all topic. It’s not that you either have interoperability or you don’t. It’s more, do you have a useful form of interoperability that is close to optimal, or a bad kind of interoperability that is suboptimal in some way. There is a lot of nuance there.

To take one example that shows both the good parts and the not-so-good parts, take air traffic control. This is a topic where interoperability has been key from the beginning. When the Wright brothers took off, there was only one plane in the sky. Now there are many more. One of the ways we have sought to protect the safety of those planes is to coordinate through this complex system of air traffic control. We initially passed a set of rules that help people coordinate when a plane should take off. Then we needed a communication system, so we added in radio. Then language became really important, and eventually we resolved on English as a common language, but even that was not good enough, so we had to resolve a standardized form of English.

It turns out that we got locked in several decades ago. The system was fine at the time, but it wasn’t sufficient to handle all of today’s traffic, and it’s been very difficult to incorporate innovations such as GPS. It’s been very effective, up to a point, but it’s not optimal.

Another example that shows both some great aspects of interoperability and some less so is the social media landscape today. It is a fabulous thing that from an Apple iPhone, one can access one’s Twitter and Facebook account and connect all of these bits of data about oneself and other people. But increasingly that is also giving rise to some new problems, particularly concerns about privacy and information security. So I think there are levels of interoperability that are fantastic for consumers and innovation, but they are also helping to introduce new versions of old problems that we will need to solve.

WR: You don’t dwell much in the book on the areas of mechanical engineering, software engineering, and networking where interoperability first became a big theme. But it strikes me that there are many useful observations there about different levels or categories of interoperability. For example, many analysts have argued that the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 was the result of interoperability gone awry—that the plant’s various systems were so tightly coupled together that there was no room for errors. Did you deliberately steer away from discussing these technical and engineering aspects of interoperability?

JP: Most of the really interesting literature so far on interoperability has been in the technical fields like engineering and computer science. I think nuclear energy is a fantastic example of that. And yes, we chose examples that were relatively non-technical to try to make a book that could be read by ordinary humans. But I think your example is a fantastic one.

To pick up on two aspects of it: first, I think the Internet and the Web and the emerging mobile Internet are examples of interoperability that has occurred in an organic way that has been enormously generative. It is the core case in favor of interoperability in many ways. The open standards that underlie the Web, e-mail, et cetera are essential to the story and that is, at its core, an engineering issue. But there are policy issues that occur along the way. We didn’t establish patents in many of the core protocols and standards of the Web, and I think that has been a very good thing. We have had great innovation because people didn’t claim strong intellectual property interests in these protocols. One thing I fear is that in the next iteration of the Web, we may not have that. I am concerned that the Tim Berners-Lee vision of the Web is not going to play out on the mobile Web.

The second example that would draw out things in your Three Mile Island example is … 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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