Standards are supposed to make things easier and more consistent, but they keep proliferating.
Ever since I first got an Apple computer ten years ago, I have been at the mercy of their idea of standards. Most of these shown here are just to connect to external video. Because Apple pretty much lives in its own world, I do not have a lot of choice if I want to keep using their machines.
Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel describe The Joy of Standards, and how “life is a lot easier when you can plug into any socket.”
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 search for standards evidently all goes back to a 1904 fire in Baltimore, where fire trucks from neighbouring cities couldn’t help because their hoses didn’t fit Baltimore’s fire hydrants. So industry got together and started developing standards. “The structure of the standardization panels balanced producers and consumers — that is, makers and users of technologies — so that no single company could dictate the outcome.” Nobody, apparently, told Steve Jobs about this.
The acceptance of standards also only goes so far; you cannot plug any electrical device into any socket if you cross borders. The North American electrical plug is cheap to produce, but easy for kids to stick things into. The European sockets are deep and protect the prongs so that it is hard to get at them. I always thought the English plugs were the worst because they are so big and clunky, but they have fuses built in, spring loaded doors and switches on each socket, and may well be the safest of the bunch.
Then there are building standards, which proliferate when different interests are involved. There was LEED, started by the US Green Building Council, but parts of the lumber and then the plastic industry didn’t like it so they pushed Green Globes. There was Passive House or Passivhaus, where the windows have to be carefully designed and are often limited in area and skylights are difficult, so a skylight manufacturer developed Active House, which puts a premium on natural light. And of course there is PHIUS, which split from the International Passivhaus in a fit of American exceptionalism.
Some people thought these were for wimps and developed the much tougher Living Building Challengestandard; others worried about embodied energy and developed the Powerhouse standard. Then there is the Well Standard that covers health and wellness.
I even jumped in and complained that the Passivhaus should cover material health and safety and embodied energy, and called for the Elrond Standard. It is all so confusing.
Russell and Vinsel conclude:
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.
My life would be easier if I didn’t have to carry a bag full of dongles and power adapters everywhere I go because everyone agreed on standards.
Green design and building would be easier if standards were all modular and plug-and-play, and if they worked well together and there weren’t so many competing for attention. The public doesn’t understand all the differences and it is all so confusing. As Russell and Vinsel note, it’s time to move ahead.