Standards can be dangerous

by Simon St. Laurent

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Walter Perry is well known at XML conferences as the heavy-duty contrarian who tells XML developers that conventional standardization practice is not only not helpful, it's harmful. While this message is rarely well-received, it's well worth deep consideration.

An enormous portion of the XML community overreacts to claims that "XML is the Tower of Babel" by retreating to descriptions of XML as a meta-language for defining standardized vocabularies that happen to share a syntax. This emphasis on standardization gives life to a growing number of projects, many of them crossing organizational boundaries and themselves giving life to various consortia.

Walter Perry runs the opposite direction, insisting that local understandings of information are far preferable to global understandings, pushing against the increasing tide of insistence that "there can be only one". To some extent, he reminds me of environmentalists who point out that the monocultures which have served us well have their own set of potentially explosive dangers.

Even if you insist that agreement is a prerequisite to communications, I strongly recommend this (densely-written) piece. There are a few similar pieces out there worth exploring, notably Edd Dumbill's "The Selfish Tag". I've written a somewhat weaker piece questioning how standards and communities interact - or don't.

One contradictory area I'll admit to finding quite amusing is the reluctance of standard-creators to require conformance to their specifications. The "error-suppressing" nature of HTML (and some RSS) processing, while in some ways convenient, demonstrates all too well how local processing that doesn't care about global rules can in fact subvert the global rules quite drastically. Local understandings can be picky or they can be loose, depending on the situation. At least with XML developers are likely to have that choice for themselves, and not be at the mercy of far-off vendors.

Why can't we all just conform?