Can We Be Too Connected? A Harvard Scholar Explores Interoperability

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in areas where the flow of information is not as essential to the story, and where the complexity one is trying to explain has less to do with that kind of connectedness. We cast off a lot of examples as we did the study because they fit less well.

WR: You have a section on standards bodies and how common standards such as the Internet Protocol or USB usually evolve through negotiations between big companies and government agencies. We don’t think of individuals as having a lot of influence over these processes, with Tim Berners-Lee as, perhaps, the biggest recent exception. If interoperability is generally something shaped by large groups over time, what can individuals really do to change things?

JP: That’s an incredibly good point. It’s right to say that generally speaking, standards processes work better for big companies than for individuals. I think where the theory of interoperability is most useful to individuals is through the frame of decision-making in our own lives.

One decision we have to make, for instance, is how we want to keep our digital media and what kind of relationship we want to have with the companies that sell digital music or digital books. If you were to go out and buy a Kindle and decide to use the Amazon platform for all of your books, and then decide at a certain point a decade from now that you want to switch over, that may or may not be an easy thing for you to do. Even if you trust the company now, you may not trust them later. That is a hard problem. With respect to innovation, as we put more of our lives into Web-based applications such as Facebook and Google, our lives are rendered more interoperable, and in most cases that interoperability works very well to ensure seamless communication. But it also means that we are putting lots of information about ourselves into private hands.

WR: Well, this is an interesting example. Jeff Bezos may decide 10 years from now that you should be able to read every Kindle edition you’ve bought on any e-reader device. Or Amazon may get even more restrictive about DRM. How is an individual supposed to anticipate those kinds of changes in interoperability?

JP: That is the problem of interoperability over time. We may get it right on day one, but what really matters is whether over time that interoperability holds. That is the point at which, to make the best personal decisions possible, we may need the government or the market to help out, to make sure that our preference holds up.

In the context of Jeff Bezos and books, that is why we need a model at this point to ensure that there is a way to update books and other items that we think of as core to our democracy. I fear exactly what you describe. We can’t rely on individual leaders. We may love the founders of Google and Facebook and Amazon today, but a decade from now they may act in ways that are not in the public interest.

WR: Who do you hope will read your book?

JP: I think there are two core audiences that we would love to see engage with the book. One is people who are running the most important companies today, who need to see that interoperability is a core part of their business strategy and that generally speaking more interoperability is a good thing both for the company and for the public, but that it’s not totally clear cut. Second, I would say people who are in key policy and decision-making positions need to see the importance of optimal interoperability to the outcomes of major public policy debates. Those range from climate change to healthcare to intellectual property and innovation in general. From an impact perspective, I hope the book is useful to those two core communities.

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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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