Standards are a Good Thing: the Meaning of ISO

I’m interested in our world of things and actions, how decisions we make play out as actual goods and activities in the world. This interaction, and how to steer towards a world of better-designed goods and activities (and what that would mean), is a theme I’ll be returning to in this space.

Right now I’m interested in standards. How they come into existence, when they help us and when they don’t, and on what merits a standard should be judged.

A standard isn’t an object. Even standards which are defined in terms of an object, such as the kilogram, are not themselves objects; they are an idea of what an object should be. More specifically, they are an idea of what an object should be, in order to be considered part of a particular class of objects. There are standard actions and events, as well; this concept of a standard applies with little change to these.

The international standards-setting body is called ISO. Many people are under the misapprehension that ISO is an acronym; when asked, they will usually identify it as standing for International Standards Organization. It doesn’t; the name in English is International Organization for Standardization, and in French Organisation internationale de normalisation.

The name ISO is taken from the Greek word ἴσος, meaning ‘equal’, and serving as a prefix in many international words such as isomer, isomorphism, isothermic etc. This is a beautiful choice for a variety of reasons.

It is descriptive, for one. Standards seek to make sure that an object, an action or an event is in some important way equal to others of its same class. If it’s a standard widget, we want to be able to reach for it knowing that it will behave like every other widget in its family. If it’s an action, such as administering a test, we’d like confidence that the results of the action can be relevantly compared, and if it’s an event, such as a world record, we would again like to know that the circumstances surrounding it allow comparison to other such events.

In physics, and all quantitative sciences, the ur-formula for data is

(aspect of reality measured) = (measurement) * (unit)

The unit is a standard. The equals sign is ISO.

It is also a compromise. The French are notoriously insistent that their language be used in international matters, and to be fair to them, they did come up with the SI (the, *cough*, International System of Units). IOS and OIN can’t really be jiggled around to provide a single acronym; ISO suggests both names, in both languages, without overtly favoring either.

Standards are often compromises, and this is a good thing. Standards are seldom completely arbitrary, but by their nature there is often room for several standards that serve the same basic purpose. A good example is rail. The various gauges for full-size rail vary between 1 to 1.5 meters; smaller and you seriously limit the amount of tonnage you can carry, while making much tighter curves and higher banks possible; larger guages are only used to move large equipment small distances, due to the unacceptably large land clearances needed.

Most of the track in the world, and all in North America, is 1435 mm apart, the so-called standard gauge. The standard gauge is just that, standard; the most amount of rolling stock is made for it, making it the cheapest to deploy. The Russians are the big holdout in the Northern Hemisphere, using a gauge of 1520 mm. Finnish rail, incidentally, is defined as 1524 mm; this difference is not substantial, and in practice this is identical to Russian gauge.

Another thing to know about standards: identical standards don’t always look the same. This too is part of the fine art of compromise, as anyone aware of the history between Finland and Russia is no doubt aware.

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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