The Politics of Lack of Standards

It seems many of my biggest frustration in life are due to lack of standard formats.

Back in the beginning of vehicular traffic (probably horseback), there must have been a time when local communities decided which side of the road to ride on. Think what cross-country travel would be like if such rules hadn't become more universal. Natural selection takes a long time to evolve standards.

Organisms that reproduce sexually, and therefore depend on exchanging genetic information, need standard genetic, and physical, formats in order to be compatible. A major definition of "species" is that all the members of one species are able to exchange genetic information with all the others of that species to produce viable offspring, but not with other species (with a few fuzzy divisions between species). The same applies to standardizing languages. Interfaces intended to be constructive need standard formats.

I see computer technology as having particular promise. Those of us who would like to see the rest of the world embrace electronic communications need to do a lot to make different systems more compatible. If we want to be able to connect any two computers in the world, without a lot of extra complications, we need one standard communication format.

The following "paragraph" is an excerpt of some recent email. I won't try to go into what combination of writing, coding and reading programs created this kind of mess (of which there are other varieties).

" =85.Vanity of vanities=85.What does a man gain by all the toil at which=
 he toils under 
the sun?  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remain=
s for ever=85.What 
has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; an=
d there is nothing 
new under the sun."
(Plus several "=90" elsewhere.)

It certainly doesn't seem the way the author, or quoter, wrote it, or expected me to read it.

It seems the only standard format for electronic communication we recognize today is ASCII (American Standard for Computer Information Interchange[?], specifying what combinations of information bits signify what letter, numbers, punctuation and Control codes. I think a great majority of communications technology deals with adapting around lack of standard formats. This includes the basic structure of Internet interfacing, with many different "species" of networking and other software, and therefore many different protocols, and the swarm of unreadable manuals for every program or piece of hardware.

In order to send an article by email, put it on my web site, and print it attractively, I need to edit it in three different ways - plain ASCII for email, HTML codes for web pages, codes from my specific word processor for printing. I usually end up sticking to plain ASCII, except for web pages. So if I want improve it later, I have to remember what improvements I made to add to the other version, or make a copied version with added or deleted HTML.

When I submit articles by email to a local alternative newspaper, and I suppose any paper that doesn't spend a lot of time re-editing, I'm asked to use "*" codes for formatting commands, for instance "*b*" at the beginning and end of a section meant to be in bold type, because ASCII bytes are the only ones we can depend on to be the same for all systems. This doesn't seem like the way to make computer systems more "user-friendly". Why can't we have standard text formatting codes, the same ones for web pages and all word processors, that can also be sent by email?

On to other areas. Most parts for most kinds of equipment are different for each make and model. (Many parts for the basic IBM "clone" computers are interchangeable, as long as you have the right adapter part or program.) For instance with cars, you go to a wrecking yard looking for a window, door handle or whatever. You see many that might come within fractions of an inch of doing the job, but unless you're an expert, you have to find the exact make, model and year of car to be sure. In the parts shops, you can't just go by description, but by the right part number for that exact car. There are so many areas where where lack of standards is the norm that we usually take it for granted. I keep finding new examples, but when I try to remember them, the trees becomes the forest.

This sort of thing is to be expected of a network developed in a capitalist, free-enterprise society gone wild, recently evolved from a "Law of the Jungle" natural selection. Our economic system is based largely on inefficiency and waste. Having standards would lead to more potential for recycling of parts, and less duplication of effort, which is too efficient and "must" be inhibited. Inefficiency creates short term profits, not to mention jobs. (Does that sort of bring the responsibility back home?) In the long term we must value efficiency in order to survive, in many different senses.

Yes, diversity of different products could lead to evolution of better products. And, most of us have specific and diverse wants in whatever we buy. But how can these matter when most of us become familiar with only one or very few different varieties of a product before it goes to a new generation? What's the value of this much diversity? Our patent and copyright laws seem to reinforce this short term ethic of lack of standards. They say each "manufacturer's product" must be different, but the maker doesn't have to tell why. It's as though the ideal would be for each designer to design from scratch. To me it re-emphasizes the need for a new economic system.

If we can ever get beyond the above kind of ethic, I have a fantasy of an intelligently run economy in which standardization becomes more the norm, but is not regimented. A major function of governments would be to SUGGEST standards for most everything, with frequent updates. The standard they would hopefully suggest for advertising (or "publicizing") a new product is that it would be expected to tell first how a product differs from the conventional standard, then why that standard doesn't fit adequately, how this product is "better", and "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". One problem with this is that companies might be pressured to reveal some secret recipes, manufacturing processes etc. Competition leads to secrecy; cooperation leads to openness.

Advertising, as practiced today, would be legal, but free exchange of networked information would make it impractical. We would find "publicized" material only when we go looking for specific information, but we would also find comments from customers and critics of the "ad" as well as the product. For most products, pictures of mostly nude dancing girls would not be considered pertinent information. (I wonder what percent of graphics of all kinds, in various media, is for information exchange and what percent is for sales.)


Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page: http://www.efn.org/~danrob/