[Humanist] 26.263 standards?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Aug 31 08:37:23 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 263.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 31 Aug 2012 07:32:05 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: standards

Steven Shapin, in his review of Robert Crease, World in the Balance: The 
Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement (Norton 2011), 
London Review of Books 34.16, 30 August 2012, observes:

> Every modern scholar now accepts that the seeming banality and
> just-so-ness of standards mask massive contingency and bloody
> struggle in their establishment and maintenance, recognising, as the
> historian Ken Adler puts it, that 'the price of standards is eternal
> vigilance'.

The struggle, he notes, is given more than a bit of iron by "the ability 
of standards to act over a distance [which is] useful if you [mean] to 
govern over a distance". Standards, that is, are an intimate part of an 
exercise of power, with force not far behind. He goes on:

> The historical trajectory of standards... is often described as
> *disembodiment*.... But under another description that process is a
> different kind of embodiment, the transference of standards from
> flesh to metal. An official ell or Troy pound just was the reference
> bar or lump constituted as such; it was the artifact that gave
> meaning to the ell-ness or pound-ness of all other things an ell long
> or a pound in weight....

We might think of the transference from flesh to silicon. And so we get 
the rational, international, local culture-free world "made to measure", 
as he says. Or computable, we might say.

As with standards of markup the benefits are clear and obvious. Shapin 
notes with Crease "the precision and homogeneity of all sorts of 
standards -- quantitative and qualitative -- ... powered by a range of 
practices that deliver us the goods and services we want and whose 
ability to do so depends on effective action over very long distances 
and exquisitely precise coordination of things and people".

One day (I would hope soon, but perhaps not possible because it is too 
recent a phenomenon) we will get an intellectual history of markup: what 
was obviously gained, what was not so obviously lost. There is a danger, 
of course, that the focus on loss gets coloured by nostalgia for a 
dreamy past of freedom. But I would suppose that this danger is avoided 
by asking the critical historical question, as in Crease's book and 
Shapin's review of it, of congruity or fitness: for us, what did/does 
the drive to externalised, silicon-ised standards have to do with 
everything else that was happening? And what do the 
counter-revolutionary resistance and the struggle against it tell us?



Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
(www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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