Handshake agreements

Last week, Laura Dawson forwarded a link that Mike Cane had pointed out. Promoting its new book, Trillions, Maya Design created and posted a short film, "Containerization", on Vimeo. It's well worth the 6:18 it takes to watch the film.

Laura thought of me in part because I've used the word "container" for quite some time* to describe a particular model of publishing. I responded in part by saying:

"The authors did a good job illustrating their points. However, they are using "container" in a way that kind of mixes "fixed" and "flexible". I support their core argument, that we need standards that guarantee information interoperability. The cargo "container" is essentially a proxy for that standard in the shipping business, but only when it comes to transit.

The metaphor breaks down at the end. Physical containers can hold (as the authors illustrate) bananas, rolls of printing paper, manufactured parts, anvils … you name it. None of these things is "interoperable" after you open the cargo container.

What we are looking for is something more granular than the container. It would help to have an agreement that all information should be "contained" in a standard way, but it performs different tasks. We look at e-mail differently from databases because they are optimized for certain uses. Finding a least common denominator among these information assets depends on agreements about how to describe what's inside the shipping container. That's what we're lacking."

As Laura noted in her response:

"Yes, the container is for transit. But I think they have a good point – once you OPEN the container, anything could happen. That's the next level of standardization – what's IN the container.

The container (and the bar code on it) is a good metaphor for the identifier. But the packing and unpacking and buying and selling and consuming are all additional tasks to be performed. These are tasks that the container makes possible but doesn't have anything further to do with. In order to act effectively on the container, you have to know what's inside it."

In the Maya Design film, there's an instructive moment when the narrator claims that "information is still being shipped break-bulk", referring to the method that pre-dated the use of cargo containers. But the examples they use to describe the complexity of information protocols is not a call for more containers; it makes the case for coherent standards that would ensure discovery, access and utility at a deeper level than the container itself.

Two years ago I wrote "We also need to use the tools we have (as well as ones we have yet to develop) to make containers an output of digital workflows, not the source of content in those workflows." If we're really going to create interoperable content databases, that starts with handshake agreements on how to talk with one another.


*A search of the Magellan blog indicates that its first use dates back to a post, "Format as brand", that appeared on October 28, 2009.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.