Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems

Rapid advances in information technology have pressing implications for us all, finds John Gilbey

July 19, 2012

You've probably been there: the plenary speaker arrives straight from the airport, rocks up to the podium and whips out a Mac laptop that the techie supporting the event assumed would be a PC. There is much muttering and scrabbling for a video adaptor - for the keynote speech has been written in, well, Keynote and won't translate adequately into PowerPoint.

This all-too-familiar premise forms the opening to Interop, a timely discussion of how systems interconnect - or fail to - in our technology-dependent society. Thankfully, much interoperability - the "interop" of the title - has developed around us to the extent that astonishing technical feats seem almost commonplace, and our growing dependence on the once-humble mobile phone provides a good example. The first time you get off a transatlantic flight and switch on your phone, it's hard not to feel a sense of magic as it swiftly scans for a signal and connects you to the local partner network. Such seamless integration so quickly becomes the assumed norm that, on subsequent occasions, you may begin to resent the 10 or 15 seconds that your phone needs to get that first connection.

At the more routinely pragmatic level, interop is now extending to how you charge your phone. In some markets, including the European Union, the huge diversity of plug types and sizes on phone chargers is in new designs being replaced by a standard micro-USB (universal serial bus) connector. Think of the number of wins this gives the consumer and the industry: one style of charger, fewer redundant devices, and even if you change your phone you can still use the old charger.

Do you need to connect your phone to your laptop to provide tethered network access or to copy pictures? The charging lead unplugs from the mains plug-top and doubles as a USB data connector - and charges the phone from your laptop during the process. The USB connector itself has played a huge role in enabling users of computer peripherals to escape the complex and bewildering tyranny of data rates, parity bits and a wide range of physical connections. "Plug and play" has come of age.

So all interoperability must be good, right? Like most things that make life easier, there is a cost beyond price to pay - the questions being how high that cost should be, and who pays it. In the case of the simple dumb mobile phone, the cost seems trivial. The phone network knows which cell tower you are connected via and could, by triangulation, provide a reasonable stab at a detailed location. Move up to a smartphone, however, and by enabling location-based services you are sharing intricate details of your travels with every app, service and organisation that you have chosen as your daily companions. The killer applications - such as augmented-reality systems that guide you around strange cities or help you to find your friends in a crowded venue - can provide an excellent user experience, but at the potential cost of your privacy.

The scale and scope of interoperability development is intimidating. The opening-up of access to programming interfaces by the major players in data management has led to a hugely rich environment of innovative services that take advantage of the global infrastructures and information resources to deliver truly bespoke provision to the sophisticated device in the palm of your hand. It is important to remember, however, that while you consume this information, you are also having the intimate details of your daily life harvested by those same services. Sometimes these data are being gathered to improve the quality of the service, sometimes to act as a feed to marketing and revenue-generation activities, and sometimes - perhaps - accidentally. But occasionally you may come across an application, or an individual, that collects personal data with malicious intent - at which point important things you have come to depend on in your connected life might start to go badly wrong.

These technologies and the applications that feed on them are part of a quickly evolving ecology in which innovation and speed-to-market drive revenue and market share. As a result, there is scarcely time for developers to acquire skills in the new platforms before they are delivering live code for real applications. In this environment, there is inevitably pressure to move quickly on new opportunities - possibly before anyone has thought through the wider implications of, say, allowing children to publish their current location to unknown sets of "friends" on an unmoderated social network.

Fortunately, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser have thought about the wider implications of this and many other threads of interoperability - threads that reach into every corner of our lives. Interop is a thorough, thoughtful and timely analysis of where we are, how we got here and where we might be headed if we want to get the maximum benefit from interoperability without paying too high a cost in the process. Standards, for example, can have a hugely beneficial effect in the promotion of innovation, but generally this is most advantageous where they are open enough to enable a free market. Standards that are overly restrictive can slow and stifle the impact of new thinking on the technical environment and the marketplace.

It is perhaps in the preservation of knowledge amid the new flood tide of data that most thought and understanding is needed. Web pages today are hugely, intrinsically dynamic - often existing just as a phantom amalgamation of feeds for only a fraction of second. How do you preserve such ephemeral, yet potentially vital, content for the future? Resources such as the excellent Wayback Machine, an initiative for preserving web content, have gone a long way to demonstrate what needs to be done - but they often expose as much about what we have already lost as about what we have preserved. If the early 21st century isn't to become a dark room, a set of empty shelves in the archive of human history, we need a truly interoperable solution to the management of knowledge.

This book discusses a wide range of examples of both the positive and negative impacts of standardisation and connectivity. From the costs - human and fiscal - of healthcare information systems to the need to have a legal system equipped to deal with this phenomenal, global speed of change, the authors delve deeply in order to reveal just how complex the issues facing us are. There is a real sense of immediacy in the text: the role played by social networks in mediating the events of the Arab Spring is drawn into focus alongside the issues of interdependency that are currently haunting the world economic system following events in the EU and further afield. It is a book that demands to be read, and debated, today - as the potential impacts on tomorrow, if we allow ourselves to drift into a wholly interoperable future without awareness or judgement, could be severe.

The issues discussed in Interop involve you and will have a significant impact on you in the near future. If you read only one book this year about how we optimise the crucial choices facing human society, make it this one.

The Authors

"I've always been interested in law," says John Palfrey, outgoing head of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University. "Since the age of 6, I've had a picture of an early 20th-century Supreme Court on my wall. I love the law as a complex system, and a mechanism for justice and equality."

The New York-born, Boston-raised Palfrey says: "The most fun year of my life was spent at the University of Cambridge, where I read for an MPhil in historical studies. It was the most truly intellectual community I've been a part of.

"I've equally loved Harvard, in different ways, and will miss it very much. I'm moving this month to Andover, Massachusetts, to become head of school at Phillips Academy, one of America's oldest, most wonderful independent high schools."

Asked to recall his own first experience with email, the co-author (with Urs Gasser) of the landmark Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (2008) says: "I'm pretty sure I wrote a note to my mom using Pine from a university computer at Harvard - she was early into computers, cellphones and technology gadgets."

Urs Gasser, executive director of the Berkman Center, says his choice of study was "influenced by my father, who is a psychologist, and his outstanding library. I've always been fascinated by everything related to information and communication, although I decided only very late in life to focus on law." Born in Solothurn, Switzerland, he has spent most of the past decade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He now experiences his own country very differently as a visitor: "I only started to appreciate the outstanding quality of the Swiss infrastructure - from airports to public schools - after travelling the world. At the same time, living and working abroad has opened my mind in many more ways than I can tell."

Authorial "interoperability", he says, was key to Born Digital and Interop. "Working with my friend John is simply a blessing; our minds 'interoperate' almost perfectly in synch while cherishing differences. I think this combination makes our work stronger - and much more fun."

Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems

By John Palfrey and Urs Gasser

Basic Books, 256pp, £19.99

ISBN 9780465021970 and 29075

Published 1 July 2012

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