Interview by Michael Prentice
Michael Prentice: Engineering Rules is your third book following Control through Communication and Structuring the Information Age. The first two focused on genres and technologies as part of the overlooked mechanisms in the history of organizations and industries. What drew you to writing now about standards?
JoAnne Yates: You are right to point out that a common thread in my work has been overlooked mechanisms and infrastructures. I tend to look at a level that other people don’t focus on – that seems too mundane. In Control through Communication, I was looking at communication and genres as an infrastructure for the modern firm. In Structuring the Information Age, I was looking at mechanisms for change in insurance processes related to adopting a new technology infrastructure—in particular, moving from tabulators to computers. Initially, insurance companies wanted computers to act like faster tabulators. Changes in processes to take advantage of the new technology came only slowly and incrementally. In Engineering Rules, the whole private standards system is an infrastructure that our society depends on tremendously. Everything that we do is governed by standards in some way or another. So the whole standardization community and the extensive network of standards organizations loom large in our ability to get things done, but we don’t know anything about them, typically. These people, their organizations, and the standards they set are a hidden infrastructure that most people don’t think about at all. Similarly, most people don’t think about communication systems (including memos and filing systems) and most people assume that when computers were introduced, they started a total revolution, rather than a gradual migration.
Michael Prentice: In the book, you emphasize the importance of voluntary standards. Why was it so important to tell that aspect of the story?
JoAnne Yates: If you think about standards on a continuum, at one end you have government regulations, where the government mandates “this is the standard for X.” On the other end, you have de facto standards that come out of long and costly standards wars–moments when firms fought in the market over what the standard should be and one player won (for example, VHS vs. Beta Max recording technologies). In between these two points is the vast world of standard setting by private standards associations, in which standards are adopted voluntarily. There are people who study both standards wars in the market and governmental regulations. Political scientists and legal scholars study the regulation piece, and some scholars in business schools study the market battles, but there’s no real scholarly domain that has taken a sustained interest in private, voluntary standards. These standards and the processes and people who set them have an enormous impact on our world and are exceptionally hidden. Voluntary standards are not typically studied by political scientists as a type of regulation (my co-author and husband Craig Murphy is one of the few exceptions). Nor are they just a function of market forces playing out.
This world of voluntary standardization is surprising to many. Most people think that governments set most standards. Instead, in this book, we are focusing on non-governmental standard setting. Some aspects of it are very different from governmental standard-setting. In private voluntary standard setting, the dynamics are different, and decisions are based on a stakeholder consensus model for producing standards. Although voluntary standards may become, in effect, mandatory when they are widely adopted, and although the voluntary standard-setting process is not perfect, it is better than either alternative for many kinds of standards, particularly interoperability standards.
Michael Prentice: When we think of standards, we think of industrial capitalism of the 19th century but the book reveals how there are lots of genres of small-scale democracy, like voting, balloting, and reaching consensus. Is the story of standards also a story of genres of democracy?
JoAnne Yates: The process of voluntary standard setting resembles deliberative democracy, but it’s more technocratic than democratic. It looks very much like a democratic process because it requires everyone on the committee to listen to everyone else, and to discuss and vote repeatedly until they reach consensus. Standards committees follow processes of deliberative democracy to reach consensus, like many social movements do. Indeed, we argue that standardizers formed a social movement and believed they could serve the world by setting standards. There were a few changes in the deliberative process over time. Most recently, the internet standardization organization, the IETF (the Internet Engineering Task Force), sees itself as much more democratic than previous bodies because anyone can attend any meeting or join the ongoing electronic discussion and have a voice, but even IETF is not purely democratic. First, only technical experts are listened to. Moreover, if a company like Microsoft wants to send a huge delegation to a meeting, they could influence the process. Still, the process does depend on elements of democracy.
I came away from this project with a great admiration for the people who participate in this process and a sense that I could never do it. I feel an admiration for the people who lead those processes, the chairs of those committees, even the participants, but particularly the chairs, who work through the discussion and voting process again and again, who have the patience to watch something go through many ballots. I give an example in the book of an electromagnetic compatibility standards committee. I found notebooks filled with all of the ballots on the standards they worked on. In the updating of one standard they voted on eleven separate drafts, and even the eleventh draft went through four ballots itself, each with minor tweaks. So the process just went on and on. Each time the chair received another set of ballots on a draft, he and two colleagues created a table listing every single objection made by anyone, then they recommended a way to address it to avoid the objection and assure that the standard would be acceptable to everyone. They had to provide a considered response to each objection–not just a “you’ve gotta be kidding”—until they reached consensus. It is true that in many of these organizations you don’t have to have complete consensus–you certainly have to have well over 51% agreement, but you don’t necessarily have to have 100%. But committee chairs strive for as close to 100% agreement as possible. They do their best to get everyone on board, or at least not objecting.
Michael Prentice: Is there an ideal type of what a standard should be? Do people imagine a standard as a white piece of paper with rules written out or as a kind of industrial spec sheet with precise measurements and sizes?
JoAnne Yates: The standard is a genre. Now standardizers don’t recognize it as such, but it was very interesting to me, coming from my background in studying genres, to recognize that a standard is a genre. They do recognize that such industrial standards are documents, not physical artifacts like a fundamental or measurement standard (for example, the object whose weight defines a kilogram or whose length defines a meter). An industrial standard is a document that states what organization made this standard, what the standard covers, and what specifications you need to follow to be compliant with the standard. Individually, standards do differ somewhat in the body. The specifications for a software standard look different than those for a screw-thread standard, for instance. The details depend on the technical domain you’re working in. But what the specification is going to look like in general, the fact that it is going to be a written specification with standard covers indicating the standards body, that’s consistent. It’s definitely a genre. I have written a paper in which I tell how the genres of standardization work and how they reflected, shaped, and were shaped by the values of standards and standardization. You get a genre system that is used to enact beliefs – in this case around the importance of standardization as a value. You see different genre systems, however, in different periods, as values and technologies change. Transparency, for instance, was not a value held by traditional standard-setting bodies. However, when the IETF came along in the 1980s, they thought that standards and the process of reaching them should be open to the world, and that standards shouldn’t be paid for, which they are with traditional standard setting organizations. IETF was pretty radical in this regard. The new values and technologies that emerged with the internet and the worldwide web have changed the genres they use.
Michael Prentice: The book describes a different set of power dynamics around standards than the usual story of standards as homogenization or control. Can you describe what those are?
JoAnne Yates: There’s a set of literature that sees standards as inherently about corporate or national power, and thus, implicitly, bad. Standard setting can involve power, but I think that without standards we would be in terrible shape. We couldn’t have the world as we know it today. I don’t see standards as something that we should dispense with because they exert power or are shaped by power. I am a glass-half-full person, and in the book we focused on power to do rather than power over, to use terms from political science and peace studies.
In fact, we even observed some positive power implications. For example, the traditional international standards bodies like ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) have one vote per country delegation. Each country’s private standards setting body, not its national government, normally picks the delegations (though in some countries that lack standard setting bodies, the governments chose the delegations). Every nation can be on any committee that they want to be on, if they are willing (and can afford) to send a delegation to the meetings, and each country’s vote has an equal weight. So standardizers from the US, for example, often complain about being outvoted by all the countries of Europe or by developing countries when they vote as a bloc. It works a little bit against the US but it has had a good side in terms of developing countries. It means that developing countries trust bodies like ISO more than they do many other kinds of international bodies because they feel like they have a voice in them. That’s a positive side effect. It’s not that they agree with every standard that gets passed, and they also can’t afford to send delegations to all standard-setting committees. But these countries see it as important that they have the right to be involved and, importantly, when they do get involved they have one vote just as the US does. The new standards bodies, like the IETF and W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), don’t have national representation. The result of that is that the IETF is dominated by Americans and Europeans who speak English well. In theory, it is a global body that’s setting standards for a global internet, but it does not actually represent all parts of the world. That body is now working to change this situation, but progress is slow. So even in this organization that sees itself as most democratic, traditional power issues still exist.
Despite such power over problems, the process provides us with tremendous power to do. We have focused primarily on power to do in the book, while acknowledging power over when necessary.