Standards Part One (And now Part Two): Standards as windows on an alternative universe

I. Introduction 

Some prefer iPhones. Others prefer Android. These are the two standards left standing for what only old guys call smartphones. ‘Standards wars’ like this have arisen throughout history. No doubt readers can provide examples back to the ancient world, but the switch to double entry bookkeeping from 1299 on and from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar from 1582 to 1927 provide us with an early instances of standards warfare. 

Since then the 19th-century gave us standards wars over railway gauges and between AC and DC current, not to mention the fairly rapid rise to sole dominance of simple standards as occurred with the QWERTY keyboard for instance. Things then really hotted up with the growing knowledge intensity of the 20th-century economy. 

Still, even as the 20th-century saw hundreds of standards wars, they were hardly front of mind for most people. That’s particularly so for science and public policy thinkers. Standards played virtually no role in mainstream economics until the 1980s when all those pesky things that got in the way of the discipline’s great quest to understand an imaginary perfect economy were readmitted into polite conversation — things like scale economies, imperfect competition, asymmetric information, cognitive biases and path dependency.  

But I think standards are a much bigger deal than this mild revisionism would have us believe. They provide a way into thinking about the world as if most of our understanding occurs outside our heads. If that strikes you as outrageous, here’s Nathaniel T. Wilcox, a fine behavioural economist and econometrician on the point: 

I suggest that the main genius of the human species lies with its ability to distribute cognition across individuals, and to incrementally accumulate physical and social cognitive artifacts that largely obviate the innate biological limitations of individuals. If this is largely why our economies grow, then we should be much more interested in distributed cognition in human groups, and correspondingly less interested in individual cognition. We should also be much more interested in the cultural accumulation of cognitive artefacts: computational devices and media, social structures and economic institutions.

Standards are a window — though only that — on that parallel universe in which our minds are ‘distributed’. 

II. Standards create worlds 

In the language of modern economics, standards are public goods. And, as we’ll see, they’re increasingly important. But they’re rarely used as textbook examples of public goods because they fit uneasily into economists’ intuition. Within the metaphysic of economics as a science of scarcity, the paradigm of a public good is some discrete physical thing or service that is costly to produce but which isn’t effectively produced by markets. Thus roads, streetlights, police and defence forces turn up in economics textbooks as examples of public goods. 

However, standards often consume few, if any, resources and often arise from the epiphenomena of life. The rule determining which side of the road we drive or the gauge of a railway are good examples. The standards associated with the internet cost thousands of person-hours but that’s trivial compared to what they’ve made possible — ​​even more so the standards that are the World Wide Web. And once brought into existence they exist forever without cost until they are superseded. Yet they create whole worlds.

In fact, standards created worlds long before this if you think of the communities of practice that grew up around the trades and professions through the last millennium. These are ‘the ways we do things’ that built the modern knowledge economy from law and accounting to engineering and quantity surveying through all the scientific disciplines. Today they run like arteries through the modern knowledge economy, each one a public good, and each one maintained stigmergically (sorry about the ugly neologism, but there you go — its does rather hit the nail on the head), and at minimal cost. 

You may or may not want to call these things ‘standards’, but the explicit and practical knowledge by which our society operates resides only fragmentarily within any particular head but in its totality in the network of particular communities of practice. As Jonathan Rauch puts it in his excellent recent book The Constitution of Knonwledge:

Objectivity, factuality, rationality: they live not just within individuals’ minds and practices but on the network …. “Objectivity,” wrote the philosopher Helen E. Longino in her influential 1990 book, Science as Social Knowledge, “is a characteristic of a community’s practice of science rather than of an individual’s.”

Or, as Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach write in their 2017 book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,

People are like bees and society a beehive: our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people. When you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive. But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.

And this goes way back into human history. One of the reasons Western explorers like Burke and Wills perished when left to their own devices in areas where the indigenes were doing just fine was that Indigenous knowledge was vast, unable to be learned at all quickly, and resided on the network — within Indigenous culture — rather than in any one mind. 

Here’s a marvellous article by human developmentalists Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich. It describes the deaths of the state of the art Franklin Expedition in the mid-19th-century. The ships were kitted out with two years’ supplies, so when they got stuck on King William Island they had over a year to learn how to survive. (The Inuit name for King William Island translates “lots of fat”.) That they didn’t manage to acquire much of that fat isn’t very surprising when you learn how the Inuit did it. 

Plants are easy to gather, but for most of the year, this is not an option in the Arctic. During the winter, the Central Inuit hunted seals, mainly by ambushing them at their breathing holes. When the sea ice begins to freeze, seals claw a number of breathing holes in the ice within their home ranges. As the ice thickens, they maintain these openings, which form conical chambers under the ice. The Inuit camped in snowy spots near the seals’ breathing holes. The ice must be covered with snow to prevent the seals from hearing the hunters’ footsteps and evading them. Inuit hunted in teams, monitoring as many holes as possible. The primary tool was a harpoon approximately 1.5 m long. Both the main shaft and foreshaft were carved from antler. On the tip was a detachable toggle harpoon head connected to a heavy braided sinew line. The other end of the harpoon was made from polar bear bone honed to a sharp point. At each hole, the hunter opened the hard icy covering using the end of the harpoon, smelled the interior to make sure it was still in use, and then used a long, thin, curved piece of caribou antler with a rounded nob on one end to investigate the chamber’s shape and plan his thrust. The hunter carefully covered most of the hole with snow and tethered a bit of down over the remaining opening. Then, the hunter waited motionless in the frigid darkness, sometimes for hours. When the seal’s arrival disturbed the down, the hunter struck downward with all his weight. If he speared the seal, he held fast to the line connected to his harpoon’s point; the seal soon tired and could be hauled onto the ice.

At least arguably, Burke and Wills perished for the same reason — they didn’t understand how to prepare the nardoo on which they fed, and it required proper preparation to yield up its nutrition. 

However standards matter even more than all this. Economics clings tightly to homo economicus which begins with Adam Smith’s idea of human beings being driven by innate tendencies to ‘truck, barter and exchange’. But Adam Smith’s foundational treatise on human nature — The Theory of Moral Sentiments — placed homo networkus at the centre. We are creatures of networks radiating out from the bond between mother and infant to our families and communities to wider associations, including our country and even humanity itself. 

And language and culture are each a standards-based network. (Smith also wrote an essay on the evolution of language as another example of order without design — along with culture (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and markets (The Wealth of Nations). 

But so far we’ve discussed only what I’ll call technical standards, which is to say standards that underpin coordination between parts of a system and are integral to it doing its work. In part two I’ll discuss a different kind of standard, one that has received far less attention — at least considered as a standard: Comparative standards.

To be continued …

Standards: continued from Part One.

Why is this man smiling?

III. Introduction

Why is this man smiling? He’s smiling because he is Charles Francis Richter and he came up with the Richter scale. And if you have come up with the Richter scale, every time there’s an earthquake, people who want to sound informed mention your name. And scientific tests prove that everyone — even small insects — like having their name mentioned.

But Charles has left the world with two problems. First, as Wikipedia reports:

Because of various shortcomings of [Richter’s]  scale, most seismological authorities now use other scales, such as the moment magnitude scale (Mw ), to report earthquake magnitudes, but much of the news media still refers to these as “Richter” magnitudes.

Still, to retain their comparability to the familiar scale the scales developed in the Richter Scale’s stead “retain the logarithmic character of the original and are scaled to have roughly comparable numeric values (typically in the middle of the scale)”. 

It gets worse. In fact we’re mostly uninterested in all these scales’ measurements, because we’re usually interested in the felt intensity of earthquakes in highly populated places. Thus for instance, one of Troppo’s apex nodes — Melbourne — recently experienced an earthquake which we were assured was 5.9 on the Richter Scale by people who are paid good money to look serious. By contrast, Christchurch’s 2011 eathquake was only 6.3 on the Richter scale and did vastly more damage. As analysis from Troppo’s Epicentre Analysis Division (EAD) reveals, the main reason for the disparity is that the epicentre of the Christchurch earthquake was in a suburb of Christchurch whereas the epicentre of the Melbourne earthquake was in Mansfield.

(Even here it wasn’t long before the Victorian earthquake produced shocks that were felt around the world, for instance in comments from Britain’s famously empathetic Prime Minister, but I digress).

In fact if you want to know the intensity of the earthquake in Melbourne you should be using a quite different comparative standard — a Seismic Intensity Scale. But who’s heard of that? And if you’re paid to look serious, that’s serious enough! You’re not paid to sound serious. Now maybe if Charles Francis Richter had been born to Mr and Mrs Seismic Intensity, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

But they weren’t.

So we are!  

IV. Designing comparative standards that are fit for purpose

Welcome to the dilemmas of comparative standards. They are brought into existence for any number of purposes, but once they are, usage and familiarity sees them solidifying in use. Some comparative standards make good sense in their initial use. But then, they become so well known that they’re used to compare things they were never built to compare — or not in the way they come to be compared. Thus GDP was exceptionally well crafted to measure economic activity for the purposes of macroeconomic management.

Then it became a point of comparison between countries. Again, because of its rigour, it was useful for this in some respects. But its familiarity meant that it became more or less ubiquitous as a general measure of a country’s economic performance. It’s pretty good as an aggregate measure, but it’s substantially worse as a summary measure of economic welfare or wellbeing. It can be converted to a per capita measure easily enough but that leaves out the distribution of income (I think we should care more about median income per capita than average income or GDP per capita.). And then there are all the old chestnuts summarised by Bobby Kennedy that just because you spend money on things, they might not improve your wellbeing — things like guns, security equipment, military spending, prisons and so on. 

Wherever they’re intended to generate information on merit, metrics of all kinds are competitive standards. And it‘s often surprising how little discussion they attract. KPIs within organisations are notorious for being taken too much at face value — setting off all kinds of misalignments between what the organisations and/or those within them are supposed to be about and what they’re actually doing. This then sets off invidious incentives where the metric is managed for rather than the outcome that metric is supposed to be capturing.   

There’s always some discussion about the marking regimes of schools, but it’s often limited to global debates that such metrics will encourage ‘teaching to the test’. Something I’d like to see more attention to is whether we want such systems to identify those with the best conceptual grasp of their subject as the best or those who manage to train themselves to make the least mistakes.

And then there are comparative standards that arrive from outside the systems they operate as standards for …

To be continued.

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16 days ago

>”Some prefer iPhones. Others prefer Android. These are the two standards left standing for what only old guys call smartphones.”
ng gets it wrong again.
1) I don’t call them “smartphones”, because they’re not. Iphonies and Droidy Googlepops are just trackers that you can’t turn off except by leaving them in a drawer at home. The Iphonies won’t even let you remove the battery. Both are full of spyware, keyloggers, trackers, all updated regularly without you saying no … and with you as the relentlessly tracked target.
2) I’m using an HTC with Windows 6.5. It’s over 10 years old and works perfectly. I deliberately learnt how to modify (recode) and then flash the ROM so it would do what I want, rather than what others may want. I have over 60 legitimate GPS mapping programs on it for geological field mapping – and NONE of them phone home.
What about social media, I hear the squawks. What’s that, I reply. People can phone me, text me as I can them. So what else do I need ? Nothing, is the truth.
3) Doubtless there will be replies along the lines of “living under a rock” and other sillies. The HTC/Windows 6.5 works perfectly for me, without the intrusive, privacy-destroying, sadistic tracking. My vaxx certificate is downloaded on it as a pdf from the relevant C’wealth site. Internet usage is done on my laptop, where I control traffic with a crafted firewall.
4) End of story. “Old guys” indeed.What ng really means is: “How dare you resist destruction of your privacy ?”. Lefties always think they have the right to monitor others.

Not Trampis
15 days ago

Well done Nick.
A very interesting article.
By the way there some dinosaurs out here who have NEVER had a smart phone and never will.
Could be correlated with people who do not have a facebook account.