The Five Types of Technological Standard

Technological standards may be usefully divided into five basic types:

Standards arrived at by consensus.

Examples: Common Lisp.

3Standards imposed by dictatorial fiat.

Examples: Russian railroad gauge.

2Standards imposed through sudden, overwhelming, and indisputable technological supremacy over the previous state of the art.

Examples: Arabic numerals.  Sildenafil.

1Standards which inescapably result from human biology.

Examples: The number of fingers on a glove.  The number of sleeves on a shirt.

0Standards which result from inescapable physical and mathematical facts.

Examples: The idea of a cache.  (The speed of light being finite, technologically-advanced aliens, should they ever turn up, will know of caching.)

This entry was written by Stanislav , posted on Friday November 19 2010 , filed under Distractions, Hot Air, Idea, NonLoper, Philosophy, SoftwareArchaeology . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “The Five Types of Technological Standard”

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by grantmichaels, Leonardo. Leonardo said: "The speed of light being finite, technologically-advanced aliens [...] will know of caching." [...]

  • That Bassett Disaster says:

    In what sense is “the idea of a cache” a “standard”? Just as all gloves SHOULD have five fingers, all computers SHOULD have caches? But what about when the engineering trade-offs favour not having a cache at all — for example, if power consumption must be minimized, and processing speed is not a concern? Ironically, such a design might be appropriate for the navigation computer on a deep-space probe — perhaps one that technologically-advanced aliens have just sent our way.

    • That Bassett Disaster says:

      While writing my previous post, I was of the opinion merely that “the idea of a cache” was a bad example. On further consideration, I believe the distinction between types 0 and 1 in this list is in fact fallacious.

      There is nothing in mathematics or physics which mandates that you assemble chunks of metal and silicon and plastic (or any other material) in certain ways. It is only when humans set a goal that a technology should meet, that there can be any requirement for how it should meet that goal — and that goal is necessarily a human concern. In the instance of a cache, that goal is minimizing the time taken by computation, driven by a human desire for timeliness. Consider a race of tortoise-like creatures with virtually unlimited patience: it might never occur to them to set this particular goal. (The idea of technologically advanced aliens “turning up” may be a bit of a red herring in this regard, as this pre-constrains them to be similar enough to humans that the similarity between their technology and ours can be explained sufficiently by having tried to meet similar goals, e.g. space exploration.)

      While standards are inherently prescriptive*, I believe is it extremely unhealthy to treat the laws of the universe as being so, as I’ve seen it lead to a kind of fundamentalism in which one concludes that others are in some deep way morally wrong when they, having a different experience of the world and thus different perceptions of it, may simply be mistaken.

      *Even de facto standards are treated as presciptions by the engineers who intentionally aim to conform to them.

      • Stanislav says:

        Dear That Bassett Disaster,

        Consider a race of tortoise-like creatures with virtually unlimited patience: it might never occur to them to set this particular goal.

        Consider Robert SheckleyRoger Zelazny’s story ‘The Great Slow Kings.’ But it so happens that, on account of the laws of thermodynamics, our universe is sadly bereft of ’slow kings’ — organisms with no notion of time. Hence the sound money is on alien caches.


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