On Karl Popper & rubberstamps

Yesterday I attended an interesting event in Brussels. This conference was about ICT standards and their role in Europe’s E-Government policies and practices. The conference had a very light attendance but I guess the size of the room also gave that impression. Overall we had a pretty good update on the issue of standards, E-Government and E-Procurement strategies in Europe, but I have to say I was disappointed by two of the panel members who spoke on the afternoon.

The panel discussion somehow drifted on the topic of open standards and , without naming the issue itself, the OOXML standardization. I was quite surprised to hear two panelists , Peter Brown and Rigo Wenning, express views on standardization in general that ended up making the counterpoint to what they meant in the first place -or at least what I think they meant in the first place.

Their two arguments that sounded different at first, turned out to have the same conclusion. Let me explain.

I found it quite disturbing that Peter Brown, one of the members of the board of directors of the OASIS, was basically saying that multiple standards were a good thing and that it had always work out like that. Then he basically questioned the whole concept of open standards, and in doing so made the point right that coining the term “openness” for everything was diluting the value of that notion. To make a long discussion a short one, Peter Brown’s point was that nothing should change in terms of standardization processes, and that it was not even worth a try, and in trying to convince the audience he used the good old allegory of the plugs and their different formats depending on the country and continent. The odd part there was that he was making the opposite point one would expect from this example: life would be easier if we only had one standard plug . Apparently not for Mr. Brown who thinks it will always be that way, and that somehow, somehow, it is useless to design too many standards (note the incoherence with his first concept) , because in the end, well, it’s useless. I also noticed that Mr Brown, who sits at the board of directors of an SDO (Standards Development Organization) that fosters the development of many Royalty -Free standards such as ODF, declared that it would be nice to “have all kinds of open standards that come with a Royalty -Free Intellectual Property mode” and “all kinds of open source implementations that will always be free for everybody” practiced some irony that I cannot enjoy as it simply shows a deep misunderstanding of the relationship between FOSS and Open Standards, and more generally, an ignorance of the concept of freedom and the absence of monetary value of software and information.

Rigo Wenning seemed to disagree on several points with Peter Brown, but to be honest, his talks were mostly about methods and processes that should not be changed (again) as they were somewhat scientifically proven to work. I hate to say -from somebody I never met before and to whom I haven’t talked- that he appeared to me as somebody who had read half of Karl Popper’s books and misunderstood the other half. If I got his opinions wrong, I will stand corrected. His intervention seemed to be coated into a pseudo-engineering taxonomy that only made his point more obscure as he was going on. In short, he was disagreeing with Peter Brown because of obscure reasons on the one hand and on the other hand, because he was from the W3C and so that made it mandatory to oppose the OASIS because of different views on standardization that somehow coalesced around the urge of remaining idle and not fixing anything.

Now, the conclusion I and others draw from this panel is that there is some absurdity in the concept of standardization. This absurdity does not belong to the kind of absurdity usually found in the works of Ionesco or the Monty Python, nor does it fit into the usual side-effects of nihilism. No, I mean that according to these two persons, standardization is an absurd process as it confers some label, some rubberstamp for anyone with enough money to pay for it. And the hell with the search for truth implied in the notion of quality, formalism, and the quest for consensus that makes up for the reality check in every standards’ development.

We sure know that there are thousands of standards out there that are not implemented. The industry has perhaps decided otherwise for both good and bad reasons. Yet, in making their respective point, Peter Brown and Rigo Wenning destroyed (conceptually) the very reasons why standards are important. They do not serve goals of open competition, open participation, quality, consensus, and economic growth. They amount to little more than a dubious label that can be marketed to gullible customers.

I don’t agree, of course. But let’s just pretend for a minute that I do, and see where it takes us. It does not bring us far, because the other, and perhaps most troublesome issue I have with the message Peter Brown and Rigo Wenning tried to get across the board was that it is useless to even try to change anything.

Well, I don’t like this kind of opinion, because when you try to think hard about it, you can see clearly that either the people who told you so have a vested interest in not letting change happen or simply display some obvious intellectual laziness. In both cases, it’s not a good thing , and to mention Karl Popper once again, it shows that the concept of “social engineering” is not being considered enough. What that concept eventually leads to, I think, is that we as humans do have the ability to improve the society in which we live in based on rational thinking and work. Anything that says that you can’t, it’s impossible, you should not, it’s useless to, etc. should be taken wit a grain of salt (unless it is applied to physical reality, but that’s just another issue). What is at stake here is our ability to change things, to improve society, industries, markets, etc. And it does not take a bunch of idealists/loonies/riot-prone punks. It takes thinking, debate, work, reality checks, improvement, etc.

This is also true for standards and standardization processes. I am one out of many out there who think open standards are worth a fight and standardization processes can be improved. Sorry if you think they are only rubberstamps.

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