Standards Make the World

Originally published at: Standards Make the World - Summer of Protocols

Technical standards are the quiet rules that give shape and direction to civilization. Alongside private organizations and public institutions, standards bodies form a third and critical function in modern society. When they’re well designed, standards can become enabling technologies, like the Internet or shipping containers. Studying the past two centuries of standards-making helps make the…

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There’s some sort of evolutionary jump between standards and protocols. I still haven’t been able to wrap my mind around what exactly that is.

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Maybe standards are just professional protocols.

Standards work emerged alongside Taylorism and the professionalization of science and engineering. They have a sort of coevolutionary dependence on commerce and industry.

Both protocols and standards constrain the variability of something… Protocols seem necessarily process-oriented, whereas standards can be about objects or things, as well as processes


Standards as sets of physical constraints that shape/enable their corresponding protocols

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still chiming in with “a standard doesn’t have to be a protocol and a protocol doesn’t have to be a standard”.


Doesn’t have to be physical, right?

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Maybe “material” or “structural” is the word I’m looking for (something that could also encompass code etc)…or this could just be the distinction between hard vs soft protocols that’s been discussed.

cf Lang p.6 “The commingling of terms hides their utility.”

standards feel more like filters than protocols ex. “is according to (standard)” and maybe makes it more commingling-able

protocols feel more like channels than standards ex. “through (protocol)”

there might be overlaps in conception ex. “following (standard)” and “following (protocol)”

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Standards show the benchmarks—could be subjective because these can be a mix of our belief systems, best practices, and we set up these standards for how we think of something and work in a certain way, and why so. Protocols sound more like a set of rules to define the flow of context, of information, of decision models, of any progress from A to B.

Standards are models, protocols are contracts

Nice. About “still”: what was the context in which this was first mentioned?

I’m writing a couple of essays on standards and protocols as part of the Autonomy and Cohesion series.. I would appreciate any thoughts, ideas, and pointers regarding comparing standards and protocols. It’s clear that some protocols are standards, but disregarding that, what do you find as important differences beyond the fact that time/sequence seems to be intrinsic for every protocol and not for every standard?

It definitely succeeded in making standards seem more exciting.

I was particularly interested in the “commercial diplomacy” idea. It outlined the failure mode of when large interests “rent seek” via standards. I couldn’t help but internalize this as “standards capture” (a la “regulatory capture”, “audience capture” and “elite capture”*).

  • *a meme? Ash Ketchum with a poke-ball roster of all these captures

This made me think of a feature of protocols that might be covered under “legitimate”, but felt more like “organic” or “representative”. They must be made sufficiently in the interests of the people that will actually use them and/or will be affected by them.

I’ve heard of a few examples of dominant players creating thorough “standards rackets”, by owning the standard, a large entity that needs to use the standards (to encourage adoption) and the means of judging the standards (e.g. in the case where it requires certain types of data), and causing all sorts of shenanigans. Carbon was mentioned in the essay and I think there are probably some good examples in various climate regulations, but don’t know of any specifically.

Protocols: steps of a process to achieve a determined outcome

Standards: tests to determine whether something (including processes) have a determined quality (fair, safe, constitutional, etc.).