Everything is Always Broken, and That’s Okay
Beyond “competition,” “efficiency” and “innovation,” interop delivers self-determination.
I am recuperating from hip-replacement surgery and while that often means I can’t concentrate enough to work, it also means I have long, uninterrupted periods to carry on correspondence, such as the paragraphs below, from my overdue reply to a left-wing economist with whom I’ve been discussing the case for interoperability. In our previous round, my correspondent had suggested that interop wasn’t necessarily good, and that even profitable interop could be bad for all of us — do we really need 50 nearly identical inks on Amazon that can all work with our printer? How can anyone make a “good” choice in that environment? My response is below.
The issue of why we should value interoperability and decry switching costs is much clearer if we dispense with arguments about “efficiency” and “choice” and “innovation” and instead focus on “self determination.”
There’s a wonderful parable about this in the form of Donald Norman’s two classic engineering/design books, “The Design of Everyday Things” (1988) and “Emotional Design” (2003). In the former, Norman established a decades-long engineering ethic of subordinating form to function on the grounds that end-users deserve to have things that work as well as possible, even if that comes at the expense of aesthetics. It’s a hymn to practicality.
But in the second, after a quarter-century of watching his ideas conquer design/engineering, Norman does an absolute volte-face. He concludes that the natural state of complex systems is for them to be broken, because even the best-designed systems are subject to a suite of unresolvable complications:
- Systems degrade due to entropy. Things wear out, even at the level of silicon (for example, the power supply in an old computer may not deliver steady voltage over time because of thermal stresses and thus the reliability of the microcircuitry it powers can decay);
- Systems must contend with uses that didn’t exist and couldn’t be foreseen at the time of their design and manufacture. For example, I routinely use a terminal program on my computer to directly issue commands to my operating system. At the…