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The Joy of Standards

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Our modern existence depends on things we can take for granted. Cars run on gas from any gas station, the plugs for electrical devices fit into any socket, and smartphones connect to anything equipped with Bluetooth. All of these conveniences depend on technical standards, the silent and often forgotten foundations of technological societies.

The objects that surround us were designed to comply with standards. Consider the humble 8-by-16-inch concrete block, the specifications of which are defined in the Masonry Society’s “Building Code Requirements and Specification for Masonry Structures.”

This book distills centuries of knowledge about the size and thickness of blocks, seismic design requirements and the use of materials like concrete, glass and mortar. Professionals worked through committees organized by the American Concrete Institute, American Society of Civil Engineers and the Masonry Society from 1977 to 1989 to foster consensus around this single national standard.

The number of technical standards that go into some products is astonishing, and the complexity of the methods used to create these standards is perhaps even more remarkable. A 2010 study found that a laptop computer incorporates 251 standards. Companies such as I.B.M. and Microsoft created some of these standards — but only 20 percent of them. The other 80 percent of the laptop’s standards were developed by private or nongovernmental organizations that facilitate collaboration and cooperation among technical experts.

These facts should prompt some reflection about the exercise of power in a technological society: Amid concerns about the excesses of market power and government regulation, nobody seems to worry much about the private groups of experts who created 80 percent of the laptop’s standards. Standards created this way, known as the “voluntary consensus” process, are ubiquitous. They range from technologies like electrical plugs, lumber and concrete, to rules and certifications for food safety and environmental sustainability, to more personal matters such as definitions of health and disease.

The basic irony of........

© The New York Times