Try building a tower by piling irregular stones on top of each other. It can be done, eight, nine, sometimes ten stones high. You need a stable hand and a good eye to spot each rock’s surface features. You find such man-made “Zen stone towers” on riverbanks and mountaintops. They last for a while until the wind blows them over. What is the relationship here between skill and height? Take relatively round stones from a riverbank. A child of two can build a tower two stones high. A child of three with improved hand-eye-coordination can manage three stones. You need experience to get to eight stones. And you need tremendous skill and a lot of trial and error to go higher than ten. Dexterity, patience and experience can get you only so far.
Now, try with a set of interlocking toy bricks as your stones. You can build much higher. More importantly: your three-year-old can build as high as you can. Why? Standardization. The stability comes from the standardized geometry of the parts. The advantage of skill is vastly diminished. The geometry of the interlocking bricks corrects the errors in hand-movement. But structural stability is standardization’s least impressive feat. Its advantages for collaboration are much more significant.
We have long appreciated the advantages of standardization in business. In 1840, the USA had more than 300 railroad companies, many with different gauges (the width between the inner sides of the rails). Many companies refused to agree on a standard gauge because of heavy sunk costs and the need for barriers to competition. Where two rail lines connected, men had to offload the cargo, sometimes store it and then load it onto new cars. In a series of steps, some by top-down enactment, but mostly by bottom-up coordination, the industry finally standardized gauges by 1886. Other countries saw similar “gauge wars.” England ended them by legislation in 1856.
In the last hundred years, every national government and supranational organization, and virtually every industry has created bodies to deal with standardization. They range from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to bodies like the “Bluetooth Special Interest Group.” Their goals are always a combination of improved product quality, reputation, safety and interoperability.
What is the best way to achieve optimal standards? While game theory (coordination games) offers a vast body of knowledge, setting standards in the real world is not easy. However, the advantages are huge. Thus, landing at a relatively low local peak is vastly preferable to no coordination. Let’s call the sum of this theoretical and practical knowledge from management and game theory the “Special Theory of Standardization”—akin to Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity.”
However, standardization is a vastly more powerful concept, one that might lead to a “General Standardization Theory.” Let’s look at a few domains that are undergirded by standardization.
Take matter, which ranges from the elementary particles up the periodic table with their standardized atoms to an endless number of discrete molecules. Simple chunkiness doesn’t seem to be enough to build a universe. Apparently, that requires standardized chunks. From a “General Standardization Theory” point of view: Is this the optimal standard or just a local peak? Or take living matter. A cell can work only with standardized building blocks (amino acids, carbohydrates, DNA, RNA, etc.). Could something as complex as a cell ever work outside of standards? A “General Standardization Theory” might provide answers on the limits of complexity that can be achieved without standards.
Further up the chain, in biology, the question is how to get huge numbers of unrelated individuals to cooperate flexibly. Some anthropologists name the invention of religion as the solution. Others suggest the evolution of moral sentiments, the invention of written law or Adam Smith’s invisible hand. I suggest that standardization is at least part of the solution. People can cooperate in ample numbers without standards though all the known mechanisms. But, eventually, groups that use standards outpace groups that do not. Is there a threshold where cooperation breaks down without the injection of standards?
My hypothesis: yes, but it is much higher than Dunbar’s number of approximately 150 individuals, possibly in the tens of thousands. Interestingly, only homo sapiens devised standardization, no other animal. Then again, this advance took even humans a long time—until the fifth millennium BC, which brought the standardization of language (writing), the standardization of value (money) and standardized weights.