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So We're All in Agreement

January 18, 2012 |
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Steve Jobs was notoriously blunt about products he found wanting, but his attack on Flash—Adobe's popular technology for playing multimedia content inside a browser—was particularly vicious. Claiming it was buggy and insecure, Jobs banned it from the iPad. Instead he threw Apple's weight behind HTML5, a competing open-source video format. He got what he wanted, posthumously: Last November, Adobe relented, promising to embrace HTML5.

Why does it matter? In business, standards establish the rules of the game, creating path dependencies as investments are made and corresponding designs are set in stone and plastic. Inferior standards can prevail due to smart marketing or industry collusion. Some standards are fleeting—Jobs's battle with Adobe recalls the earlier tussle between Sony's Blu Ray and Toshiba's HD DVD video formats and between VHS and Betamax before that. Of course, the winners do not always deserve their victory: The QWERTY keyboard—hardly the most effective typing layout—has been dominant since the 1870s.

Standards play a consequential role in nearly every aspect of our lives, from the quality of our food to the octane of our gasoline. They introduce predictability into our chaotic existence, sparing us unnecessary hassle, obviating routine decisions and allowing us to get on with life. It's surprising that we don't reflect on them more often.

What would happen to globalization if shipping containers had not been standardized? Where would modern science be without standards for conducting experiments or breeding laboratory rats? How far would modern medicine have advanced if radiographs from one laboratory could not be read in another?

Lawrence Busch, a sociologist at Michigan State University, has produced a stimulating account of how and why we create standards. "Standards: Recipes for Reality" is not a technical study of particular standards but an eclectic, philosophical attempt to examine how standards "are used, spoken of, employed, designed, put into common practice." Mr. Busch's goal is ambitious, for the very term "standards" covers a lot of conceptual territory. It can propose an exemplary measure (e.g., a second as calculated by the atomic clock), emphasize moral character (standards of decorum) or indicate an average (normal weight or height).

"The standardization of the world," according to Mr. Busch, began with the Enlightenment project and its ardent belief in universal narratives and the rationality of human reason. This mindset helped advance standards for warfare, science, schooling and, eventually, even business management (apparently, the efficiency theories of Frederick W. Taylor owe a huge debt to Diderot). The rapid industrialization of the West and the growing specialization of firms in advanced economies also highlighted the need for standards. Writing in 1904, Thorstein Veblen gave an apt analysis: "What is not competently standardized calls for too much of craftsmanlike skill, reflection, and individual elaboration, and is therefore not available for economical use."

Not everyone embraced standardization; many of Veblen's contemporaries thought that standards would eliminate individuality and make life dull. Others feared that if the quality of products were fixed through standards, the terms of competition would focus on price alone, destroying any companies unwilling to lower their, well, standards.

Miraculously, that problem has been solved—with the help of standards, or what Mr. Busch calls "standardized differentiation," whereby standards are used to differentiate rather than to standardize. Today we have so many varieties of jarred pickles because it became possible to "fix"—both in the trademark office and in the mind of the consumer—the attributes of each variety, one differing from another according to color, texture, size or any number of other criteria.

Over the past few decades, standardization in transportation and communication has allowed firms to operate globally, while the retreat of the state, in many countries, has led to the embrace of self-regulation by industry consortiums. We now have a complex system of certification, whereby third-party certifiers ensure that what is produced by first parties conforms to what the second party requires. (This logic works on an individual scale as well; today young graduates can aim for one kind of certification or another, whether Certified Public Accountant or Certified Ethical Hacker.)

For Mr. Busch, the main drawback of standards is not that they make life boring but that they so frequently have unintended effects. He sees standards as complex technical and moral devices that can be abused as easily as they can be put to noble causes. The book is peppered with examples of standards and their accidental consequences.

Take the No Child Left Behind Act, which ties a school's federal funding (and, eventually, its future) to how well its students perform on a statewide standardized test. Some schools neglect pedagogy and focus instead on boosting the scores. Some may give less help to students likely to perform really well or really poorly, giving attention to those just below acceptable levels. Others may disregard disciplines not being tested. As a result, writes Mr. Busch, "even those poorly performing schools that succeed in meeting the minimum standards may actually do a poorer job of educating students." This is hardly the goal that the act sought to promote.

"The challenge," Mr. Busch writes, "is not to eliminate standards, to return to some mythical past during which standards were of trivial importance, [but] to ensure that seemingly benign standards do not lead to gross injustices."