• United States
by Steve Taylor and Joanie Wexler

What lurks at OSI Layer 8?

Jan 28, 20032 mins

* Not all protocols are about technology

The OSI model defines protocols for how a network technically handles communications at the various functional layers.  Starting with electrons and photons at the physical layer (Layer 1), the model offers an orderly framework for end-to-end communications up to and including how applications interact with humans at Layer 7. 

However, there’s an additional layer that the OSI model can’t specify. And at the end of the day, this layer might be the most important one of all.  We’re calling it “OSI Layer 8,” and it represents human-to-human interactions – or, more simply, the ability of humans to communicate meaningfully with one another in the first place.

Take e-mail, for example. Your message rides on a far-reaching, high-speed, secure, redundant IP WAN infrastructure. But if you send a message written in German to someone who understands only Chinese, the network has been useless. No communication has actually taken place.

Sure, there are products that translate between languages. But there’s a reason for the colloquial phrase, “It got lost in the translation.” Using translation programs, the nuances – if not the core meaning – of messages quite often get lost. Many translation programs also make rash assumptions, such as that there are no typos in the message to be interpreted.

But there’s a piece to this puzzle that’s even more fundamental than whether an e-mail is written in English or Swahili: understanding that people reading e-mails, navigating Web pages, shopping e-commerce sites, mining information from a database, or using applications in any other way are living, breathing humans. Being able to communicate in a meaningful way to humans – including presenting information in a way that they can get their arms around – transcends network technology in importance. 

Is there a technology component of OSI Layer 8?  Not really.  Some e-mail programs try to warn you if your e-mail might be offensive by comparing your message against a dictionary of distasteful language.  But it’s up to you and your good judgment to make sure that you’re using the nonoffensive words appropriately.

Next time we’ll offer some concrete suggestions for staying out of trouble at OSI Layer 8.