Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Time to scrap standards

From Wikipedia

Many years ago a lecturer tried to make a point about common standards after I’d claimed they are inherently restrictive of our freedoms. She used traffic lights as an analogy of how restrictions may allow us to get on with our lives more conveniently.

Today I’d have taken her up on the traffic light analogy, but at the time I let it pass. However it is a useful lead-in for standards – are they useful or restrictive?

Of course standards are both useful and restrictive, but I think it’s too easy to be complacent about them. In some areas they are hugely advantageous, such as technical standards. But even practical, nuts and bolts standards can stifle innovation and lead us into second-best solutions as with the demise of Betamax video. Not that it necessarily matters – a second-best technical standard may well be far better than no standard at all.

It’s the non-techie standards I have a problem with and that includes my lecturer’s traffic lights, which are not of course a technical standard. Around the blogosphere we’ve had a number of good posts about David Cameron and his witless support for global governance. He means global standards of course. Sounds sort of okay too if you aren’t paying attention and haven’t been following the agenda.

But non-technical standards aren’t necessarily beneficial. These standards may destroy what limited freedoms we still have left – global standards merely destroying them globally.

Standards always attract their eager maintenance crews to tamper, tinker, tighten and extend, building a career on more and more restrictive practices. Non-technical standards are always suspect – complex and inflexible bureaucratic processes applied to problems which could be resolved in more relaxed, less freedom-harming ways. Here are just a few possibilities, not all equally serious, but all aimed to question and highlight our mania for standards – you will have lots of others.

  • Insolvent banks? Let them go to the wall.
  • Traffic lights? Switch them off – save power.
  • Education? Make it more contractual.
  • Hospital waiting times? Make healthcare more contractual.
  • Advertising? All ads to include the words “Probably Nonsense.”
  • Food standards? Keep it technical – no five a day slogans.
  • Smoking? The risks are known – nothing to do with the state.
  • Alcohol? The risks are known – nothing to do with the state.
  • Drugs? Legalise them and ensure the risks are known.
  • Building regs? Keep it technical.
  • Planning? Keep it technical – geology, flood risk and services.
  • Policing standards? Keep it technical – catch criminals.
  • Environmental standards? Keep it technical – focus on human health.
  • The EU? Keep it technical – back to a common market.
  • Energy – let the market decide.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Good list.

As to traffic lights, was the woman mad? They are completely counter-productive, they are a crime against humanity. Let's have yellow boxes or roundabouts or nothing at all.

David Duff said...

I find traffic lights immensely useful, liberating, even, er, when they're green, that is. When they're red, they are obviously an infringement of my civil rights!

A K Haart said...

MW - thanks - she was quite a good lecturer, but very conventional.

DD - my father once said how silly he felt at 3am in the morning, sitting in the car waiting for coloured lights to change.

James Higham said...

Interesting angle - now I'll have to go away and muse on this.