The consensus-driven approach had two clear advantages over existing alternatives. First, a forum to bring “all interested parties” into alignment reduced duplication and wasted effort. Second, the absence of state coercion to enforce standards meant that engineers and executives had strong incentives to resolve conflicts before they published a standard, lest they face government intervention down the road. The success of their efforts would depend on the voluntary adoption of standards. The consensus process was well suited for a society where technological and economic progress was within reach — all it needed to do was to find ways to cooperate.
This was no easy task. The standards committee’s longtime secretary, Paul Gough Agnew, looked back wearily at the “endless discussions” that set the stage for the first meeting in 1918. One of the group’s founders, the electrical engineer Comfort Adams, observed, “Fear and jealousy, as well as ignorance, were the chief obstacles which had to be overcome.”
Over the past century, standardisation has expanded immensely. Today, private transnational organisations create and revise 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. Nasty disagreements can derail the process. Companies that agree on standards one day turn around and sue one another the next. In some industries, companies can make fortunes by defying established standards — think of innovative products from Apple, or bold designs from the leaders of the fashion industry. Standardisation also creates losers, and it can be very costly to invest in the losing side of “standards wars” like VHS versus Betamax, or Blu-ray versus HD DVD.
Access to standards also poses challenges. Since the consensus-building process is costly, organisations like ANSI often try to cover expenses by selling or licensing access to standards documents. For example, the book of standards for concrete blocks and masonry structures costs $150. This business model strikes many critics as unjust, since private standards can be built into regulations, yet sometimes only citizens who pay can look at them.
The American system of standardisation is driven by industry, but we should not lose sight of the crucial role played by government agencies. The National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, contributed research and ideas to the standards committee’s efforts from the beginning. And governments often mandate standards around air pollution and automotive and aviation safety because industry did not adopt them on a voluntary consensus basis. Federal air pollution standards that led to the widespread adoption of the catalytic converter and reduced some automotive emissions by 99 percent worked through force, not bottom-up consensus.
Standards have always struggled with an image problem. Critics worry that a standardised world is dull and mediocre, a nightmare of conformity and Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Yet the champions of standardisation insist that standards create the foundations for a better world. Albert Whitney, who was the standards committee’s chairman from 1922 to 1924, argued that many accomplishments of civilisation involved “the fixation of advances.” The committee’s motto in the 1920s declared: “Standardisation is dynamic, not static; it means not to stand still, but to move forward together.”
In an age of breathless enthusiasm for the new and “disruptive,” it’s worth remembering the mundane agreements embodied in the things around us. It’s very ordinariness and settledness of standards that enable us to survive, and to move ahead.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.