Are Standards And Methods The Next Madoff Pyramid In Computer Science ?

Jean Rohmer


Applying standards and methods is a must in modern society. However, in the domain of information processing systems or of computer-automated systems, we have observed that misuse or abuse of standards and methods can lead to very negative effects. We consider that contemporary misuse of standards may offend elementary scientific and technical ethics. In this note, we concentrate on these negative aspects, and we will not balance them with their positive ones. Among our concerns:

1) Standards and methods may prevent a project / product from succeeding If you ask designers of successful software products or services, they often explain that their secret is “never use standards” : they are too slow, change too often by keeping to fashion, the tools supposed to support them are faulty. They deliberately develop programs their own way, using tools tailored to their needs and fine-tuned year after year. Alternatively, when programmers are urged by to stick to standards, the risk of failure increases. Our own experience in managing large advanced software projects leads to the same conclusions. This is a problem for the conduct of scientific and technical projects: should a developer accept to comply with standards knowing it will impair the process, should management take the risk of departing from the common policy knowing that opinion –or justice- can blame this decision?

2) Standards and methods may be an obstacle to innovation and they decrease human skills Standards are designed to do standard things the standard way. If the standard you use is at low-level enough, it may be a good launching pad, but a high-level standard confines you in somebody else clothes and ideas. People lose their freedom, their responsibility, they stop to learn by try and errors. Moreover, management believe that, since there exist standards, all problems are solved by advance. In their eyes, standards depreciate the work of their employees, which become interchangeable.

3) Standards and methods may create the illusion of scientific progress Historically, standards were created after something had been invented and broadly adopted, to make its variants compatible. Recently, some authors found it faster to invent the standard first, make enough buzz around it, justifying more and more investments from governments and economy to reach the self -claimed Graal. We call them standards of fantasy. For instance, this is happening for years around the so-called “Semantic Web” W3C standards, which claim to make the Web an intelligent unified shared database at the scale of the Planet simply by the magic of standardizing the representation of elementary information. One of the bad consequences of such standards of fantasy, is that thousands of people generate research projects of fantasy, from the sole belief that in the future theses standards will give birth to a reality. Research becomes standardized, researchers become standardized, research programs become standardized … Then indeed standardized rhymes with sterilized. In such circumstances, ethics urges to resist to standards. And any scientific community should examine itself accordingly.
Standards of fantasy survive and flourish by creating vicious –not for them- circles: more and more projects are justified by the existence of these standards, which in their turn boast of their adoption by more and more projects.

At this point, it is tempting to make a parallel with the current financial crisis. Abuse of methods, abuse of standards, may lead to a spiral of catastrophes. If we play this game, we can develop the analogy:

— giving a method to people is like lending them experience, knowledge, intelligence they are missing, and that they will not be able to refund, except at the price of adopting another method supposed to correct the bad consequences of the first one, as subscribing a new loan. In another words, a kind of Ponzi pyramide.

— the method of splitting a given activity or project into many sub-activities or subprojects delegated to third parties is like securitization in finance . This is frequent in engineering with cascades of subcontracting, and in cooperative research projects with too many partners. Each partner is chosen because it is supposed to excel in applying such or such submethod. Finally, risks are diluted and nobody knows where they hide.

— fiscal paradises, money laundering also exist in the world of standards and methods: their name is Powerpoint presentations: by using formatted ways of writing and communicating, they transform poor content, empty ideas into the appearance of professionalism and trusted knowledge.

— junk bonds are simply the standards of fantasy mentioned earlier

— finally, the cement of this analogy is the existence in both sides of a pensée unique : the belief in standards and methods versus the belief in extreme liberalism and deregulation (a kind of paradox )

To conclude on a positive note, we propose that a way to escape the crisis created by abuse of standards and methods, it to reempower all actors of information systems. We must stop imposing programmers standards of programming which cripple them, and in fact have the only aim of preventing them from programming, by fear of their potential mistakes. And if we fear we fail. We must encourage liberal rather than carceral programming. We must also propose end-users themselves tools to let them become programmers of their own knowledge, rather than simple consumers of online information. In this direction, we advocate in other publications -under the expression of litteratus calculus- for using natural language and dialogue as the ultimate standards, standards built by human history, and which span from millennium to millennium.