Every once in a while, I’m struck by how thoroughly the commercial world is standardized. One example: Paper. There are literally thousands of paper manufacturers and paper makers in the world; but if you visit your local office supply store, almost the entire selection of sheet paper, note pads and stationery comes in prearranged sizes. Sheet paper (at least in the Western world), comes in legal, letter and A-5 (half-letter) dimensions, regardless of the manufacturer. Similarly, you can buy legal pads anywhere and be confident they measure 8.5 in. x 14 in. (They’ll still fold neatly in a letter-sized envelope.) That same standardization runs throughout the paper industry. All envelopes fit their corresponding sheets. Even seeming unusual paper products like business cards and Post-its come in predictable sizes. Any secretary or journalist can tell you that a steno pad is 6 in. x 9 in. and a reporter’s notebook is 4 in. x 8 in. (its available writing surface equivalent to one column of a steno pad.)
The standardization of paper, of course, is no accident. It derives from an old German system that was based on two simple premises: One was that the source sheet for all other paper products should be one square meter; the other that the ratio of its sides should be proportional to the square root of 2. Those standards produce a large sheet (called A-0, in the industry) from which successively smaller sizes are formed by folding the sheet in half along the longer dimension. This system, with modest modifications, obtains even here in the United States. Once called DIN standards, they’re now the ISO paper standards.
ISO, of course, is the International Standards Organization, a consortium of national standard setting organizations from around the world. U.S. paper standards, for example, derive from the American National Standards Institute, which is a member of ISO. In that way, ANSI and ISO are precursors to the model for standardization that prevails in the world today. ANSI, for instance, was formed as a joint operation by various American engineering associations and societies in the early 1900′s. Similar organizations arose around the industrial world. It’s not just paper that’s standardized, after all. Tools, bearings, electrical equipment, weights and measures, machinery – most of the artifacts of civilization practically – all have their systems and standards. And organizations like ISO or ANSI, or member organizations like the IEEE or the American Society for Testing Material, continually revise and perfect those standards.
This isn’t just old school. In fact, modern technology would hardly be possible without this kind of international standardization and the organizations that facilitate it. You’re reading this on the Internet, which can only happen because of the structure enforced by the W3C – the World Wide Web Consortium – an international community dedicated to standardizing the code and rules that underlie Internet protocols. Without the W3C and its predecessor, the Internet would quickly descend into chaos.
That same model – vast, international communities of largely volunteer members with a stake in the success of various technologies – have become the de facto regulators of the digital world. Even proprietary software companies like Adobe, WordPress, Blackbaud and ESRI have realized the value of this sort sui generis standardization. Without it, you could never find a nut to fit your bolt, a wallet to hold your driver’s license, a wheel for your car, or – yes – an envelope for that letter you’re never going to write again.