TOC Pluperfection or imperfection? Your Turn

February 10, 2009

"Global financial markets are in disarray but prospects for innovation in the real economy have never been more robust" (*). I doubt Michael Schrage knows his secret email address but I suspect President Obama would love to receive such a morale booster. At second thoughts, no doubt he would recognize the wisdom to filter Michael Schrage's declaration through some review mechanism. I gladly offer myself for the task.

Since in its first half the statement neither suffers debate nor defines solutions, focus must be cast on its second half. Michael Schrage's suggestion is to bring forth renewed innovation by increasing interoperability between systems, Internet being but one example.

Anyone who has attempted to port a software from a Windows to a Unix environment or tried metric wrenches on US-designed devices will understand the benefits of interoperability. Michael Schrage's contribution is not in rediscovering a well accepted truth, it lies in the timeliness of the reminder and the warnings which come with his analysis.

"Interoperability can create, or destroy, innovation oligopolies and monopolies". Last year, Jonathan Zittrain had already shown how corporate economic interests threaten the openness of Internet itself. Imagine too if President Obama asked the US industry to adopt the metric system. It would create both a considerable expense short term, and long term a lasting benefit, a perfect recipe for his recovery program. Yet as one more barrier to trade would come crashing down, wouldn't such a decision be fought against foot by foot.

Also "increased interoperability means increased vulnerabilities" (1). Even before Internet gave "wicked innovators" the way to send their malware coursing down to our computers, American pre-Columbian civilizations were defeated in part by the very road networks they had built to boost communications between the disparate pieces of their vast empires. Closer to us, our ability to create foods and medications as "mash-ups" based on dozens of suppliers multiplies the cases of general hysteria, witness the peanut scare documented by Andrew Martin and Liz Robbins (**).

But what about Michael Schrage's advice to "creat[e] cost-effective rules of engagement for customized interoperability" as "a fantastic business challenge"? Isn't this cryptic call in need of clarification, itself proof a contrario better interoperability unfetters added value? Interpreting Michael Schrage's prose, I will bridge our private jargons and claim his most capital issue is all about eprivacy, our rights to our own data.

Take one of the examples provided by the author, "giving people the power to determine whether their cardiac pacemakers should be able to influence their running shoes". In our Information Age, the greatest potential of interoperability is to facilitate data flows, paving the way to implement countless unheard-of ideas. But who will control these flows? Were the world perfectly open and free from wickedness, the question would remain.

While strict grammatical parsing of Michael Schrage's example favors giving power to the individuals whose data is in play, sceptics will be quick to seize upon the ambiguity as to who exactly are the "people". Manufacturers, who claim shoes or pacemakers are theirs because they made them? Insurers, who claim such devices are theirs because they paid for them? Employers, who claim health-enhancing products are theirs because they pay for them with their health benefits? Nowadays aren't end users left dataless in the name of security, freedom of speech and economic efficiency?

Michael Schrage's fault, for I find fault overall despite my agreeing to each part, is to put the cart before the horse. Extolling the future of interoperability ignores the fact that we already lack the "rules of engagement" to master its current achievements. Without eprivacy and the ability it provides to discover and exploit new, mutually beneficial, one to one relations, browsing the Internet is like riding a mountain bike without brakes.

We can quickly cobble together fully developed portraits from information shards carelessly scattered on sundry social sites. Admire the illustration provided by Raphaël Meltz (***) and relayed by Vincent Delfau (****). We witness mass reactions amplified by popularity trumping expertise. Ponder this aphorism, courtesy of Lucy Kellaway (*****). "On the internet, a trouble shared is not a trouble halved. It is a trouble needlessly multiplied all over the world." We lose time for reflexion. Meditate Neil Swidey's damning conclusion (******). "Because of technology, we never have to be alone anymore. And that's the problem."

Future pluperfection can only increase present imperfections.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Interoperability: the great enabler, by Michael Schrage (Financial Times) - February 6, 2009
  • (**) ......... Fallout Widens As Buyers Shun Peanut Butter, by Andrew Martin and Liz Robbins (New York Times) - February 7, 2009
  • (***) ....... Marc L***, by Raphaël Meltz (Le Tigre) - November-December 2008
  • (****) ..... L'édifiant portrait de Marc L, fruit de ses traces numériques, by Vincent Delfau (Le Monde Informatique) - January 16, 2009
  • (*****) ... At last I have fallen into the recession's web of fear, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - February 2, 2009
  • (******) . The End of Alone, by Neil Swidey (Boston Globe Magazine) - February 8, 2009
  • (1) see our lectures on Liabilities and Vulnerabilities in the Information Age
February 2009
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