Behind the curtain

I’ve remarked often through the years that virtually everything you can see from your desktop, every activity in which you participate, is touched by engineers. The computer and monitor on which you’re reading this, the desktop your keyboard rests on, the television that is on in the background, your shelf of reference books, your Mr. Coffee … it is all brought to you by engineers.

Hell, if you use birth control even your sex life is touched by the geeky characters who walk around with clipboards. If you don’t use birth control, the odds are pretty good that your child will be born in a hospital that is a showroom for engineering genius.1

And behind the engineers are the standards people, the people who define exactly the meaning of measurements, how to conduct tests, the meaning of technical jargon.

This is why civil engineers are so annoyed when somebody speaks of a “cement sidewalk.” No. It’s a concrete sidewalk; cement is the component that holds it together.

Our modern existence depends on things we can take for granted. Cars run on gas from any gas station, the plugs for electrical devices fit into any socket, and smartphones connect to anything equipped with Bluetooth. All of these conveniences depend on technical standards, the silent and often forgotten foundations of technological societies.

The objects that surround us were designed to comply with standards. Consider the humble 8-by-16-inch concrete block, the specifications of which are defined in the Masonry Society’s “Building Code Requirements and Specification for Masonry Structures.”

This book distills centuries of knowledge about the size and thickness of blocks, seismic design requirements and the use of materials like concrete, glass and mortar.

Few people have any real understanding of what engineers do for a living, and to many engineers that’s a source of great pride; it means we do our job so well that society hums along and we are taken for granted.

But standards matter, and comprise the bedrock of the common language used by professional engineers. Try to imagine, if you can, a world in which the measurement 1-millimeter means one thing to an American engineer, and something different to a Chinese engineer.

What a nice surprise it was, then, that the New York Times saw fit to publish a piece about the importance of standards.

Standards have always struggled with an image problem. Critics worry that a standardized world is dull and mediocre, a nightmare of conformity and Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Yet the champions of standardization insist that standards create the foundations for a better world. Albert Whitney, who was the standards committee’s chairman from 1922 to 1924, argued that many accomplishments of civilization involved “the fixation of advances.” The committee’s motto in the 1920s declared: “Standardization is dynamic, not static; it means not to stand still, but to move forward together.”

In an age of breathless enthusiasm for the new and “disruptive,” it’s worth remembering the mundane agreements embodied in the things around us. It’s very ordinariness and settledness of standards that enable us to survive, and to move ahead.

Well said.

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1   Just so’s you know, engineers don’t ask their friends if they’re hoping for a boy or girl. No. Engineers ask, “What sort of engineer are you hoping for? Mechanical? Civil? Electrical?”

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