Private, voluntary standards shape almost everything we use, and have been critical to every major change in the world economy for more than a century, including the rise of global manufacturing and the ubiquity of the Internet. A social movement of engineers created this increasingly complex, worldwide system through three waves of institutional innovation beginning in the 1880s. The engineers initially aimed to prove their status as professionals by doing something that governments rarely wanted to do and markets typically failed to do — create useful standards. They created principles of balanced participation by multiple stakeholders and developed a process to reach consensus on standards that would be widely adopted by manufacturers and would satisfy the manufacturer’s corporate customers. By the 1920s, the standardizers thought of themselves as critical to national prosperity and world peace. After World War II, a second, increasingly international wave of the standardization movement transcended wartime enmities and Cold War divisions to create standards that made the global economy possible. Since 1990, a new generation of standardizers has launched a third wave, focusing on standardizing the Internet and Web and applying the same standard setting process to private regulation of the environmental and social downsides of globalization.
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