Drive on the Right!

When Afganistan tried driving on the right. The camels didn’t cooperate, so they switched back.

Some standards prescribe how to perform a solitary task. How to make plaster: mix the powder into the water never the other way around. The value adopting such standards is limited to improving the task at hand. Other standards that create efficiencies for the interaction of pairs or groups of people interest me. These are the rules that govern handshakes, roads, communication, meetings, trade, etc. The value in adopting these standards grows as more people you interact with adopt them – they have what is known as “Network Effect”.

Consider why people drive on the right hand side of the road (sadly that link is broken and the original essay at New Scientist has gone missing. Here is a substitute). This is a wonderful example. This “standard battle” unfolded over centuries.

On uncrowded roads you need no standard beyond avoiding the potholes. As crowding develops localities randomly pick something standard. They have a slight tendency to pick the “safer” standard: the drive on the left where your sword arm can defend you. Authorities, like the Pope, and events, like the crusades, help the standard to spread. The standard becomes tied to other issues, e.g. the upper class ride on the left while the lower classes walk on the right. “Know your place.” Come the revolution in France. “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!” Everybody drives on the right. This standards war then plays out thru Napoleon, Hitler, and the American century so that today the majority of the planet drives on the right. But still India’s billion people drive on the left since neither Napoleon nor Hitler conquered England.

I’m interested in how standards and network effects arise; how they spread; how they are disrupted. There are plenty of hints in this one story.

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