Can We Be Too Connected? A Harvard Scholar Explores Interoperability

6/22/12Follow @wroush

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the smart grid. This is where we end the book—on the big architectures that are relevant to the future. The tight coupling of the electric grid to information systems holds out enormous promise for improving efficiency. On the other hand, it leads to all of the problems that caused Three Mile Island, and also to a set of national security concerns and consumer privacy concerns.

This, in a way, is the core payoff of our theory: when we are designing these systems, we need to design for these known bugs in highly interoperable systems. We need to start thinking about complexity and its relationship to security and privacy and build those in from an engineering and a policy perspective.

WR: You do have a lot of examples in the book of interoperability playing out in areas like music sharing and privacy and standards, but in the end you don’t really offer a strong thesis or set of recommendations about how much interoperability is the right amount. Is that because the answer is different for every type of system? Or were you more interested in providing a framework than specific prescriptions?

JP: We do think there are optimal levels of interoperability. They just happen to be context-specific. Rather than write a book that said “This is how to do it,” we wanted to develop a broad theory that we thought could apply to lots of situations. In the introduction, right on page 15, we include a chart that shows 10 different ways to get to interoperability. This may seem academic and potentially too nuanced, but we actually think it’s the right answer; we prefer complex answers to complex problems, to get to a balanced and effective outcome in a specific instance. It may seem unfulfilling, but I think it’s part and parcel of the story.

When we look into specific problems, we do give specific answers. In the case of developing standards for electronic health records, for example, we give fairly specific answers for what we think should happen. In some cases it means a greater role for certain private players, and in some cases it means a greater role for actors in government. We’re trying to give a general theory and show how we would apply that theory in some specific instances. So I think your critique is fair, but it’s also core to the payoff of the book.

WR: Let’s look at a specific example that was probably just starting to boil over as you were finishing the book—the financial crisis in Europe and specifically in Greece, where it seems that the debate over bailouts and austerity is bringing the whole logic of the European common currency into question. In your framework, is this a case of too much interoperability, or too little?

JP: I think the Greek example is a perfect one for seeking to understand interoperability at its most complex. To me the benefit of a highly interoperable system in Europe and having a common currency is that there has been economic growth over a period of time. But what I think the current crisis shows is that we have not been as good about creating the firebreaks between the different parts of a system as we have been about creating the connections. We tend to rush into interoperable systems and make them more interoperable than they ought to be, because we get carried away by the benefits without thinking about the downsides. In the Greek example, I think we need to develop ways to compartmentalize the trouble that comes from one part of a complex system, so that when it goes bad it doesn’t affect the entire thing.

WR: I’m not an economist, but one of the major prescriptions I’m hearing for saving the Euro Zone is to have an even higher level of interoperability, with rules for borrowing and taxation set centrally. In other words, the idea would be to put in place a fiscal union to go along with the common currency. What would your theory say about whether that’s the right direction?

JP: I’m not an economist either, and this is reaching quite a bit further than the core of our book. But I would say there are at least two answers for Europe. One would be to become more interoperable and have a system that’s more harmonized, with stricter rules about what it means to be in the system. Or you could say that Greece is different enough that they cannot be part of the system. You can have a highly interoperable system with one less member. That wouldn’t mean that the Euro Zone is over, it would just mean that there was a member who was not willing to play by the rules that are necessary to maintain the union.

Is there a third way? That is ultimately the creative challenge for policymakers. Can they come up with a plan that will enable Greece to stay in the union but also create enough of a firebreak between Greece and the rest of the system so that there is not a continued series of bailouts? That is the question the EU has to answer.

WR: You were saying earlier that once you started thinking deeply about interoperability, you saw examples of it everywhere. And I think it would be really easy to get carried away and start saying that in every case where a technology or a system has had great benefits, it’s an example of interoperability being optimized correctly, and in every case where we have a bad outcome, it was because of too much or too little interoperability. But at that point, the framework would become almost meaningless. Have you thought about whether your theory is falsifiable? Are there areas where it just doesn’t apply?

JP: The way I think about it is, topics that relate to complex systems that are highly dependent on information and data flows are the ones where interoperability theory is the strongest. The relationship between interoperability and innovation is a good core case. Another one that is really core is the relationship between interoperability and consumer choice. On the down side, two examples that are really important are privacy and security. Those are the core cases where interoperability really makes a lot of difference. I think where the theory starts to break down is … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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