John Polfrey/Urs GasserSolving for Interop

2.19    John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, excerpts: Solving for Interop, Architectures of the Future: Building a Better World and Conclusion: The Pay off of Interop as Theory, in Interop: The Promise and Perils of Higly Interconnected Systems, New York 2012, p. 231-262

a) Background

The texts at hand, represents two chapters from the latest book by Urs Gasser and John Palfrey Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems. They are exemplary for the fruitful transatlantic collaboration between Gasser and Palfrey and the international adoption of some of the core ideas that emerged in the context of the St. Gallen Approach to Information Law. In Interop, Gasser and Palfrey explore the immense importance of interoperability—the flow of information across technological systems and components—and show how this principle will hold the key to our success in the coming decades and beyond.  Interoperability has been facilitating innovation and economic growth for centuries. The standardization of the railroad gauge, for instance, 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—especially in the digitally networked environment. 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. Gasser and Palfrey demonstrate 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.  The authors 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.

Gasser’s collaboration with John Palfrey, who serves as Head of School at Philips Academy Andover,  has been professionally and personally impactful. Before his transition to Andover in 2012, Palfrey was vice dean for library and information resources and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he led a reorganization of the library in 2009.  Both experts in the field of emerging technologies and born in 1972, Palfrey (who graduated from Harvard Law in ’01) met Gasser in 2002 during his LL.M. year at HLS while serving as the Berkman Center’s Executive Director.  Ever since, they have collaborated closely on a broad variety of research projects, resulting in numerous papers and two books.  An important aspect of the collaboration has been the building of a transatlantic bridge—between research institutions, colleagues, but also methodologies and school of thoughts.  Towards this goal, Palfrey and Gasser initiated a series of annual expert workshops co-hosted by the Berkman Center and the Research Center for Information Law, with participants from the US and Europe.  Under the metaphor “Learning a Foreign Language” as an umbrella term, the two organized a series of well-remembered events around some of the hardest problems in the digitally networked information society, including workshops on interoperability, youth and creativity, surveillance, digital methods, and the future of consumer protection, among others.  The St. Gallen Approach to Information Law played a key role in the framing of these workshops and in the discussions.  As part of collaboration, Palfrey was appointed Visiting Professor at the University of St. Gallen, and Gasser—while at St. Gallen—Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center. and later Professor from practice at Harvard Law School

b) Summary

The following two excerpts from John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s Interop are the final chapter entitled “Architectures of the Future: Building a Better World” and the book’s conclusion “The Payoff of Interop as Theory.” Both are taken from the final section of the book entitled “Solving for Interop”.  They are aimed at synthesizing the main themes and key findings as outlined in the context section above, but approach this task from two different angles.  The “Architectures of the Future” chapter builds upon the interop framework developed in the book—using, for instance, the layer-model of interoperability as an analytical tool—and applies the lessons learned to three information architectures that will heavily shape the solution space of some of the most pressing problems humankind faces—from climate change and healthcare crisis to the preservation of the world’s knowledge.  The three future architectures are “cloud computing”, the “smart grid”, and the “Internet of Thing”.  They illustrate from both a very practical as well as highly strategic perspective the importance of the right degree of interconnectedness.  Without enough interoperability, so Palfrey and Gasser argue, these systems will not come into being or won’t provide effective solutions to some of the most challenging societal problems.  If they are made to be too highly interoperable, by contrast, new problems such as unprecedented security and privacy risks might emerge—potentially at very high societal costs.  The authors discuss these future-oriented examples to show the practical importance of getting interop right as a matter of theory when aiming at “building a better world”, but also to show the enormous complexity and difficulties we face in the public and private sector when designing optimum interoperable systems.

The conclusion of the book takes a different approach by taking a step back from the questions of future IT infrastructures and discussing more broadly how the theory of interoperability can be used in policy debates.  The authors suggest four uses:  First, interop as a high level theory sheds light on what tends to go right and what can go wrong with complex systems that rely upon a constant exchange of information, often mediated by digital and networked technologies.  Interop as a theory, for instance, demonstrates that the proper functioning of systems, which seem to be dominantly technical in nature, often heavily depends on how well human beings and institutions can work together.  Second, interop as description—studied from the bottom up—gives insights into the concrete mechanics of specific interoperability problems based on a series of case studies (which the authors made available online), including decision-making processes, divergent motivations of players, cultural differences, and international power play.  Third, interop as prediction helps company executives and public policy makers by enabling them to better anticipate the consequences of certain design choices and actions—for instance related to the use of intellectual property in the context of online services or products, or when engaging in IT procurement processes—both in the private and public sectors.  Finally, Palfrey and Gasser highlight the normative aspect of any theory:  The study of interop can inform decision making about what the most promising approach might be to any given interop problem—be it higher quality health care, more efficient traffic systems, or improved energy infrastructures.  The authors conclude that the theory of interop “should push us, as individuals and as societies, to acknowledge and address the costs and benefits of deep interconnections…” and “…understand … the implications of the failure of complex systems to work together in optimal fashion”, in order to help us “as we work together, across our many roles and functions in society, to fashion the kind of world in which we wish to live.”

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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