Notice & Comment

The Duality of Innovation and Standards

In their detailed history, Engineering Rules, Professors JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy describe some of the people and processes that have featured prominently in standard-setting movements from the 1880s forward. The authors’ admiration for them is clear, as they describe the personal commitment of organizers and committee participants who travel, sometimes on their own dime, to far-flung locations to make progress on issues that can take years to resolve.

Reading this, I was reminded of a dear friend who used to travel consistently for one of the Internet standards groups. She kept a photo journal called “Miles of Malaise” with entries for sad, unrecognizable airline food, a makeshift cot she constructed out of two pleather lounge seats and her trusty rollerbag to nap during a long layover, tupperware-style container with other containers inside for different currencies, and ads for some truly weird products hawked through SkyMall. All images from an economy-class warrior chasing a vision for a better future for everyone, one working group meeting and poorly-lit international departure lounge at a time.

This also makes sense to me because, in my limited international travel as a government employee, I can attest that if I did it for the glamour I would have been sorely disappointed. And, the book helpfully explains that government folks don’t have a monopoly on this type of service. Neither, though, do standard-setters, as plenty of folks in academia, non-profits, private industry, and beyond engage in personal sacrifice outside of standard-setting.

The book’s emphasis on the deep personal commitment and investment of the standard-setters troubles me, somewhat, if those attributes are meant to signal a lofty superiority above other ongoing work and its protagonists. Although standard-setting can serve the greater good, it does not inevitably do so. For example, present in almost every standard-setting effort, as noted extensively in the book, is the tension between innovation and standardization. Attempt to standardize too soon, and you thwart innovation.

The book acknowledges a similar theme, from a letter to the London Times in which playwright John Osborne wrote: “How ineffably depressing it is to know that such a thing actually exists and officially functions called the International Organization for Standardization.” (p.198) This quote is terribly harsh and misses, by a mile, the value of the work done by the standard-setting community so vividly described in the book. And yet, I can’t help but think of Emerson’s admonition: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” Now, Emerson is obviously not talking about screw threads and the metric system, here, but the quote is irresistible for its idea that pursuing consistency for its own sake, absent a pressing reason to do so, is likely a mistake.

On the other hand, the risks are real and people can get hurt when incompatible products are used together. They can also waste time and money, e.g., using precious cargo space to lug around trustworthy spare parts instead of goods that could otherwise be in the stream of commerce.

How, then, to decide when to initiate standard-setting when resources to set standards are limited? And to which problems is standard-setting best suited? The book explains that some of the groups espoused principles to guide them, such as “initiating standardization only when rapid technical change and improvement of a product, part, or process had ended.” (p.78) This was a principle used by a group in the early 1900s. A more modern limiting principle, also shared in the book—just one display of its sweep through history and the ongoing relevance of standard-setting—is “running code,” which means using feedback from implementation to inform standards, and refusing to set standards in advance. There’s a clear parallel here to efforts to limit use of the precautionary principle in regulation, which is intriguing and deserves additional thought.

And, at one point in the development of standard-setting organizations, which have navigated through an astonishing amount of organizational and geopolitical turmoil since 1880, their leadership emphasized “standardization as the force for peace” in a warring world. (p.268) As the book explains, this philosophy was turned on its head at some point, with the Internet offered as “the force for peace and standardization as essential to the web.” (Id.) This is an example of the kind of analysis that the book indulges in from time to time, giving glimpses of what this all means and how we should think about it. It makes me eager to read more that takes this rich history and extracts lessons and ideas from it, particularly on how standards and innovation relate to each other.

While this is an oversimplification, I think that if we conceive of innovation as generative, disruptive, and unruly, then we can think of standardization as facilitative, pains-taking, and precise. There’s a duality there and I’m curious to know more about it. Yin and yang, perhaps, or, if you prefer a more modern duality, consider the Unified Theory of Muppet Types, with innovation as the Chaos Muppet and standard-setting as the Order Muppet. As an Order Muppet myself, after reading this book I find myself feeling grateful for the quiet, diligent work of standard-setters past and present, especially the ones eating sad airplane food right now as you read this blog post.*

* This blog post delivered faithfully to you using a bevy of, you guessed it, technical standards.

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.