Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems

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Basic Books, Jun 5, 2012 - Technology & Engineering - 304 pages
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In Interop, technology experts John Palfrey and Urs Gasser explore the immense importance of interoperability—the standardization and integration of technology—and show how this simple principle will hold the key to our success in the coming decades and beyond.

The practice of standardization has been facilitating innovation and economic growth for centuries. The standardization of the railroad gauge revolutionized the flow of commodities, the standardization of money revolutionized debt markets and simplified trade, and the standardization of credit networks has allowed for the purchase of goods using money deposited in a bank half a world away. These advancements did not eradicate the different systems they affected; instead, each system has been transformed so that it can interoperate with systems all over the world, while still preserving local diversity.

As Palfrey and Gasser show, interoperability is a critical aspect of any successful system—and now it is more important than ever. Today we are confronted with challenges that affect us on a global scale: the financial crisis, the quest for sustainable energy, and the need to reform health care systems and improve global disaster response systems. The successful flow of information across systems is crucial if we are to solve these problems, but we must also learn to manage the vast degree of interconnection inherent in each system involved. Interoperability offers a number of solutions to these global challenges, but Palfrey and Gasser also consider its potential negative effects, especially with respect to privacy, security, and co-dependence of states; indeed, interoperability has already sparked debates about document data formats, digital music, and how to create successful yet safe cloud computing. Interop demonstrates that, in order to get the most out of interoperability while minimizing its risks, we will need to fundamentally revisit our understanding of how it works, and how it can allow for improvements in each of its constituent parts.

In Interop, Palfrey and Gasser argue that there needs to be a nuanced, stable theory of interoperability—one that still generates efficiencies, but which also ensures a sustainable mode of interconnection. Pointing the way forward for the new information economy, Interop provides valuable insights into how technological integration and innovation can flourish in the twenty-first century.


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As was the case with their previous book, “Born Digital,” Palfrey & Gasser’s “Interop” offers a supremely balanced treatment of a complicated and sometimes quite contentious set of information policy issues. The authors have a gift for penning engaging and extremely well-written books that enlighten, educate, and entertain. In “Interop,” Palfrey and Gasser propose an ambitious task: developing “a normative theory identifying what we want out of all this interconnectivity” that the information age has brought us. They correctly note “there is no single, agreed-upon definition of interoperability” and that “there are even many views about what interop is and how it should be achieved.” Generally speaking, they argue increased interoperability -- especially among information networks and systems -- is a good thing because it “provides consumers greater choice and autonomy,” “is generally good for competition and innovation,” and “can lead to systemic efficiencies.” But they wisely acknowledge that there are trade-offs, too, noting that “this growing level of interconnectedness comes at an increasingly high price.” Whether we are talking about privacy, security, consumer choice, the state of competition, or anything else, Palfrey and Gasser argue that “the problems of too much interconnectivity present enormous challenges both for organizations and for society at large.” Their chapter and privacy and security offers many examples, but one need only look around at their own digital existence to realize the truth of this paradox. The more interconnected our information systems become, and the more intertwined our social and economic lives become with those systems, the greater the possibility of spam, viruses, data breaches, and various types of privacy or reputational problems. Interoperability giveth and it taketh away. Ultimately, however, the authors fail to devise a clear standard for when interoperability is good and when governments should take steps to facilitate or mandate it. They argue that “there is no single form or optimal amount of interoperability that will suit every circumstance” and that “most of the specifics of how to bring interop about [must] be determined on a case-by-case basis. Yet, Palfrey and Gasser also make it clear they want government(s) to play an active role in ensuring optimal interoperability. They say they favor “blended approaches that draw upon the comparative advantages of the private and public sector,” but they argue that government should feel free to tip or nudge interoperability determinations in superior directions to satisfy “the public interest.” “If deployed with skill,” they argue, “the law can play a central role in ensuring that we get as close as possible to optimal levels of interoperability in complex systems.” The fundamental problem this “public interest” approach to interoperability regulation is that it is no better than the “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” standard we sometimes at work in the realm of speech regulation. It’s an empty vessel, and if it is the lodestar by which policymakers make determinations about the optimal level of interoperability, then it leaves markets, innovators, and consumers subject to the arbitrary whims of what a handful of politicians or regulators think constitutes “optimal interoperability,” “appropriate standards,” and “best available technology.” In a longer review of their book over at the Technology Liberation Front blog, I offer an alternative framework that suggests patience, humility, and openness to ongoing marketplace experimentation as the primary public policy virtues that lawmakers should instead embrace. Ongoing marketplace experimentation with technical standards, modes of information production and dissemination, and interoperable information systems, is almost always preferable to the artificial foreclosure of this dynamic process through state action. Regardless, I highly recommend you read Interop.  


Title Page
CHAPTER ONE The Technology and Data Layers
CHAPTER TWO The Human and Institutional Layers
CHAPTER THREE Consumer Empowerment
CHAPTER FOUR Privacy and Security
CHAPTER SIX Innovation
CHAPTER SEVEN Systemic Efficiencies
CHAPTER TEN Legal Interop
The Case of Health Care
Preservation of Knowledge

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About the author (2012)

John Palfrey is Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School. He is a faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He has published extensively on the Internet’s relationship to Intellectual Property, international governance, and democracy, and is the author or co-author of Intellectual Property Strategy; Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rules in Cyberspace; Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies: Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force; and Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering. A regular commentator on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News, NPR and BBC, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Urs Gasser†is the Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He is a Visiting Professor at KEIO University in Japan and teaches regularly on three continents. He has written and edited several books and contributed close to 100 articles in books, law reviews, and professional journals. He is also an advisor to international technology companies on information law matters. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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