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? Continue reading