Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More Thoughts on Standards

I've been boning up on some of the literature on standards and I've come across some interesting tidbits.

Stuart Shapiro makes some very interesting observations about standards in an article from 1997. He explores the debate the occurred in the UK as the British Standards Institution (BSI)--a national organization--took control over building codes from the Institute of Structural Engineers--a professional one. The notion of limit state design versus permissible stress design. The debate involved a number of issues including such great chestnuts as the responsibility of the profession, the autonomy of the designing engineer, and public safety. He also explored the rather contentious issue of standards for software design. Notably, they have never been successful in the same way as other bodies of engineers. He explains:

"Standards in general and standards of practice in particular are key aspects of teh context of any technological artifact, embodying a variety of interests, tensions, and assumptions. Why, after all, should the use of such standards necessarily be any more straightforward than their development?" (p.288)

He also makes some valuable observations about the role of standards in design. They are consistent with the views of such researchers as Slaton, Henderson, Bucciarelli, Ferguson, and Vincenti:

"Standards are one of the principal mechanisms for managing complexity of any sort, including technological complexity. Standardized terminology, physical properties, and procedures all paly a role in constraining the size of the universe in which the practitioner must make decisions. Rather than starting from scratch each and every time--defining basic terminology, establishing the means of measuring physical properties in a consistent manner, determining what constitutes best or minimal acceptable practice--the practitioner can focus on the specifics of the problem at hand, the factors which render one technological artifact distinct from others. Standards provide a starting point by controlling what must e considered in the course of technological practice." (p.290)

My second source of information on standards comes from a most peculiar book: Historical record, dimensions and properties, rolled shapes, steel and wrought iron beams and columns as rolled in U.S.A., period 1873 to 1952, with sources as noted. This very Elizabethan title belongs to a work that in many ways resembles the structural design handbooks of the AISC, its publisher. But instead of showing shapes of standard dimensions, it lists the details of historical shapes, many from suppliers that no longer exist. The format--immediately familiar to a civil engineer--is sure to drive a historian crazy; it's a book created to satisfy the whims of some renegade engineer that asks questions like: "What if I designed this building with the 6" wrought iron beams that were available on the market in 1885? Could I source the material from Carnegie Phipps [No]? What about Passaic [Yes] or Carnegie Kloman [Yes]?" I'm somehow reminded of fantasy football pools. But instead of building a team that combines Lawrence Taylor, Conredge Holloway, and Orlando Pace, I'm left with bizarre steel sections from obscure and forgotten suppliers.


American Institute of Steel Construction, & Ferris, H. W. (1953). Historical record, dimensions and properties: rolled shapes, steel and wrought iron beams & columns, as rolled in U.S.A., period 1873 to 1952. Chicago, Il: AISC.

Shapiro, Stuart (1997). Degrees of freedom: the interaction of standards of practice and engineering judgment. Science, Technology, and Human Values. 22(3),286-316.