Notice & Comment

Engineering Rules – A Major Contribution to the Early History of International Standardization, by Jorge L. Contreras

JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy’s new book Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting Since 1880 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2019) offers a comprehensive and detailed institutional history of international standardization from its origins in the nineteenth century through the present day. Especially with regard to its treatment of early- and mid-twentieth century standardization efforts and institutions, Engineering Rules makes an original and valuable contribution to the growing literature of standardization.

Engineering Rules is, at its heart, the history of a movement. As such, it does not focus on any particular industry or market, but rather on the seemingly amorphous concept of standardization across national borders.  Yet the book is not a loosely-configured meditation on different areas of standardization, as one might say of Lawrence Busch’s well-known Standards: Recipes for Reality (MIT Press, 2011). Rather, Yates and Murphy analyze the development and spread of international standardization in terms of several key institutions: the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Through the evolution of these and other organizations, they identify the political, commercial and social trends that led to global standardization of products and technologies from railroad ties to shipping containers to radio frequency interference.

Among the most valuable contributions made by Engineering Rules is its rich history of standardization during the first half of the twentieth century.  Yates and Murphy’s discussion of international standardization during the early twentieth century is driven by accounts of the heroic efforts of standards evangelists like Charles le Maistre and Olle Sturén. Their history offers a glimpse into the largely forgotten world of international standardization for standardization’s sake, in which product compatibility was not tied to any particular industry or market, but pursued in a spirit of internationalism that seems more distant today than it did a century ago. This historical approach is both fresh and informative. While numerous other authors, most notably Tim Büthe and Walter Mattli in The New Global rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011), have analyzed the political economy of ISO, IEC and ITU, few if any have done so from so historical a standpoint. The perspective offered by Yates and Murphy is thus a valuable addition to the literature.

Part III of Engineering Rules covers the “Third Wave” of standardization, which the authors peg to the early 1980s with the coming of age of the Internet. Here, the authors venture into more heavily trod territory. Numerous authors have tackled the political economy and sociology of Internet standardization, which often bleeds into the politically-fraught area of Internet “governance”, not to mention dozens of books detailing the early days of the Arpanet and computer networking.  Laura DeNardis, for example, in Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance (MIT Press, 2009) and her edited volume Opening Standards: The Global Politics of Interoperability (MIT Press, 2011), addresses a range of institutional, geopolitical, economic, and civil liberties issues arising from the standards that are chosen for our most pervasive technology network. And the historian Andrew Russell, in Open Standards and the Digital Age: History, Ideology, and Networks (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), masterfully compares the historical development of open architecture Internet standardization with the proprietary world of telecommunications standards.  While both Yates and Murphy and Russell discuss the principal Internet standardization bodies – the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) – Yates and Murphy shed less light on the origins and ideology of these organizations in the earlier computing industry that developed during the 1960s and 70s. Instead, they transition incongruously from a lengthy chapter on electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) directly into a discussion of the Internet and the birth of IETF.

Likewise, the authors do little to address the contrasting standardization environment that simultaneously developed around landline and mobile telecommunications, an industry dominated by proprietary standards and intellectual property battles that continue to this day. Particularly notable is their almost complete omission of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), perhaps the most influential, if not the most contentious, international standards body operating today. This omission is particularly confusing, as Yates and Murphy devote some space to a discussion of W3C’s controversial 2003 royalty-free patent policy (pp. 263-64). Yet the W3C policy was not adopted in isolation, but within the context of raging patent disputes across the industry that continue today (see Russell and this short article).  The problem may be that the subject of modern network standardization is simply too large and multifaceted to address thoroughly in a single chapter, though the authors, consistent with their approach in the earlier portions of the book, write with an air of comprehensiveness and explanatory power that simply cannot be achieved with respect to these more recent topics.

Similarly, the final chapter of Engineering Rules concerns the recent trend toward standards promoting ethical and social goals.  Yates and Murphy begin with the ISO 9000 series of standards for quality management which emerged in the 1970s, and continue through twenty-first century initiatives in the areas of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.  Here the authors are on familiar ground, focusing primarily on efforts at ISO and its competitors.  Yet the area of social standards is a vast one with its own extensive literature. For example, see Carsten Schmitz-Hoffman et al.  Voluntary Standard Systems: A Contribution to Sustainable Development (Springer, 2014) and this short piece bemoaning the proliferation of such standards in the area of sustainable building materials. Yates and Murphy illuminate a thin slice of this world – that centered around ISO — but could do more to place it within the larger context of international sustainability standards and certifications.

Engineering Rules is at its strongest when discussing the early- to mid-twentieth century evolution of the international standardization ecosystem and memorable figures like Olle Sturén. Here, Yates and Murphy offer a unique perspective on a little-known, but critical, chapter in modern industrial history. As such, this discussion nicely complements the broader literature on standardization that largely begins with the telecommunications and computing revolutions of the 1970s. Yates and Murphy do less justice, however, to more recent standardization trends – Internet and sustainability —  which are presented as somewhat isolated case studies devoid of the larger market and industrial contexts in which they developed and continue to operate. While the material that the authors present is indisputably informative, the reader would do well to supplement these later chapters with the work of authors like Russell and DeNardis.

Engineering Rules purports to be a history of global standard setting. As such, its focus on the Big-I standardization bodies (ISO, IEC and ITU) is effective through the first half of the twentieth century. After that, however, the standardization picture becomes more fractured as technology pervades virtually every area of the market economy. By the late twentieth century, the history of standardization cannot be told through the lens of one or even a handful of discrete organizations or projects. The canvas is much broader, and the branches of the tree more expansive. Case studies of particular episodes in this recent history are welcome and useful, but can be deceptive when presented as the terminus of a historical arc extending back more than a century.  Thus, Yates and Murphy, by seeking to extend their historical methodology, which was effective for the early years of international standardization, into the Internet era, may have stumbled over a methodological fault line.  But this should not be seen as diminishing the significant value of the contribution that they have made to the literature of international standardization, particularly by illuminating its dimly-lit early years.

Jorge L. Contreras is a Professor of Law at the University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law.

This post is part of a symposium reviewing JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy‘s Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 (John Hopkins University Press). Previous posts in the symposium can be viewed here.