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Opinion | Joy of Standards



The consensus-driven approach had two clear advantages over existing alternatives. Firstly, a forum to bring "all interested parties" to customize reduced duplication and wasted effort. Second, the lack of state compulsion to enforce standards meant that engineers and executives had strong incentives to resolve conflicts before publishing a standard so they did not face government intervention on the road. The success of their efforts will depend on the voluntary adoption of standards. The consensus process was well suited to a society where technological and economic progress was within reach – all it needed to do was find ways to work together.

This was no easy task. The Standard Committee's long-term secretary, Paul Gough Agnew, looked back at the "endless discussions" that set the stage for the first meeting in 1918. One of the founders of the group, the electric engineer Comfort Adams, observed: "Fear and jealousy, as well as ignorance, were the main obstacles that had to be overcome. "

Over the past century, standardization has expanded enormously. Today, private transnational organizations create and audit thousands of consensus standards every year.

Although the voluntary consensus method has been effective, it has never been perfect. For example, "consensus" is often a euphemism. Uneven disagreements can track the process. Companies that agree on standards one day, turn around and sue each other next. In some industries, businesses can make fortunes by defining established standards – think of innovative products from Apple, or bold motives from the fashion industry leaders. Standardization also creates losers and it can be very expensive to invest in the losing side of "standard wreaths" such as VHS versus Betamax, or Blu-ray versus HD DVD.

Access to standards also poses challenges. Since the consensus building process is costly, organizations such as ANSI often try to cover expenses by selling or licensing access to standard documents. For example, the book standard s for concrete blocks and masonry structures costs $ 150. This business model hits many critics as unfair, since private standards can be built into regulations, but sometimes only paying citizens can look at them.

The American standardization system is run by the industry, but we should not lose the decisive role of government agencies. The National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, contributed research and ideas to the standard committee's efforts from the beginning. And governments often mandate standards on air pollution and car and aviation security because the industry did not adopt them on a voluntary consensus basis. Federal air pollution standards that led to widespread adoption of the catalyst and reduced some car emissions by 99 percent, worked with power, not bottom-up consensus.

Standards have always struggled with an image problem. Critics are concerned that a standardized world is dull and mediocre, a nightmare of conformity and cafecia bureaucracy. But the standardization masters insist that standards create the basis for a better world. Albert Whitney, who was the standard committee leader from 1922 to 1924, claimed that many achievements of civilization meant "fixation of progress." The committee's motto in the 1920s stated: "Standardization is dynamic, not static; it does not mean standing still but moving forward."

In a time of breathless enthusiasm for the new and "disturbing", it is worthwhile to remember the worldly agreements rendered in the things around us.

Andrew Russell, Dean of Arts and Science at the University of New York Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech, is working on a book on innovation and maintenance.

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