The standard bearers

Have you ever thought how nice it is that a USB memory stick will be compatible in almost every computer on Earth? Or how, wherever you go, you will be able to identify a door as disabled access? You have one organisation to thank for that.

The International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, holds a lot of power. Without them, global trade would not function. The internet would have ceased to exist several decades ago. We would probably be eating and drinking things contaminated with awful chemicals, just because the makers didn’t know any better. And without ISO, the globalisation of the economy that we enjoy today might well not have happened.

The International Organisation for Standardization was set up in 1947, to try to make a set of global standards. There are currently over 19500 ISO standards, controlling everything from air pollution levels to computer code interpretation to paper size to hazard symbols to squareness. They are (respectively) ISO standards 4220:1983, 15445:2000, 22414:2004, 7010:2011 and 6443:2005. The ISO standard database (all of which can be found at is unbelievable extensive. But it can seem kind of excessive. Do we really need ISO 109:1982, standardizing the left and right sides of weaving looms?

Well, yes. Sort of.

To explain the great power of ISO, I’m going to imagine a digital age without ISO. So, you turn on your computer. Depending on which brand of computer you have, the button could have a number of varieties – the standard on switch design is an EIC standard, EIC 60417. (EIC is one of the groups associated with ISO, and deals specifically in electronic standards). Then, when you do turn on the computer, there are virtually no third-party apps or games that you can use. Because graphics cards interfaces have not been standardized, every maker does it differently. Then you open a browser. Without HTML standardization, the webpage you see will vary depending on country and device. Good web design is impossible, because everyone can interpret the design code differently.

And then you try to plug in a USB drive. Good luck. Without the USB standard, every single maker will use a different socket and then try to sell you converters. There is no guarantee that a drive will even be compatible with the software on a computer. And then there’s WiFi – there is an ISO standard that determines how computers interact wirelessly, without which WiFi would not be compatible across devices.

I’ve just described a 5-minute process that most of you will do every day. In those 5 minutes, there are at least 10 ISO standards at play – at least. The entire modern world is dependent on things being able to interact with each other, and for people to agree on what makes water clean (or something). ISO is a way of uniting thousands of companies, making them play fair and letting us move fluently between devices and objects.

It’s also the reason I charge my Samsung phone with an Amazon cable plugged into an Apple wall socket. And when I’m working in a lab in Belarus, I know exactly what is poisonous.

This is the first of a three-part series on standardisation. Next week we will be looking at the hidden corporation that literally controls everything you see on a screen. Ready your tin-foil hats, my friends.


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