Straitjackets of Standards

This week I was invited to participate as an expert in a Delphi study of The Future Internet, being undertaken by an EC-funded research project.   One of the aims of the project is to identify multiple plausible future scenarios for the socio-economic role(s) of the Internet and related technologies, after which the project aim to reach a consensus on a small number of these scenarios.  Although the documents I saw were unclear as to exactly which population this consensus was to be reached among, I presume it was intended to be a consensus of the participants in the Delphi Study.

I have a profound philosophical disagreement with this objective, and indeed with most of the EC’s many efforts in standardization.   Tim Berners-Lee invented Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP), for example, in order to enable physicists to publish their research documents to one another in a manner which enabled author-control of document appearance.    Like most new technologies. HTTP was not invented for the many other uses to which it has since been put; indeed, many of these other applications have required hacks or fudges to HTTP in order to work.  For example, because HTTP does not keep track of the state of a request, fudges such as cookies are needed.  If we had all been in consensual agreement with The Greatest Living Briton about the purposes of HTTP, we would have no e-commerce, no blogging, no social networking, no easy remote access to databases, no large-scale distributed collaborations, no easy action-at-a-distance, in short no transformation of our society and life these last two decades, just the broadcast publishing of text documents.

Let us put aside this childish, warm-and-fuzzy, touchy-feely seeking after consensus.  Our society benefits most from a diversity of opinions and strong disagreements, a hundred flowers blooming, a cacophony of voices in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  This is particularly true of opinions regarding the uses and applications of innovations.   Yet the EC persists, in some recalcitrant chasing after illusive certainty, in trying to force us all into straitjackets of standards and equal practice.    These efforts are misguided and wrong-headed, and deserve to fail.

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