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Workers of the World, Conform (2017) writes Nader Vossoughian for Triplecanopy. The well written text accounts the motivations behind seemingly innocent standards (such as A4) and how standardization helps to establish world orders.

With the increase in the number of workers who dealt primarily in knowledge and its material expressions, the techniques underlying mass production came to be applied to office work. This shift had a moral dimension, as standardization was associated with orderly and democratic societies, transparent and punctilious characters. [Wilhelm] Ostwald went so far as to suggest that Kant’s categorical imperative be replaced by the “energetic imperative.” He believed that all moral judgments were inextricably linked to the question of efficiency: Actions that minimize waste are good, those that unnecessarily cause waste are bad.

Ostwald and his cohort were galvanized by the development of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy increases in any isolated system. The law gave credence to the notion that workplace efficiency represents a scientific and not just a moral or economic imperative.

To minimize waste, Ostwald advocated the use of universal auxiliary languages such as Ido, a simplified form of Esperanto (which was billed as “everybody’s second language”), and the invention of a global currency. But his focus shifted after the advertiser and bibliographer K.W. Bührer gave him a copy of Die Organisierung der geistigen Arbeit durch “Die Brücke” (The Organization of Intellectual Work through “The Bridge”) (1911) […] The book argues that the creation of universal systems for recording and circulating information hinges on the worldwide adoption of standards for the formatting of paper. By eliminating the need to consider paper sizes, fonts, layouts, margin sizes, and so on, standards would free postal workers, scholars, and bank clerks from the burdens of information management.

[…] Die Brücke lobbied for the imposition of uniformity on sheets of paper—which, in their various dimensions, cluttered desks, spilled from folders, and distorted image reproductions. “Paper and other bearers of signs and symbols form the technical foundation of all cultures, that is, of all intellectual capital [geistigen Kapitals],” Ostwald wrote in his 1927 autobiography.

[…] Porstmann ended up going to work for the German Institute for Standardization. He modified Die Brücke’s proposal, which became the standard DIN 476, published in 1922. The paper formats are now in use by all countries except the United States and Canada. (The vast majority of printed matter appears on A4 sheets of paper, which measure 210 by 297 millimeters.) They are essential to the infrastructure of the Information Age and permeate the modern office, having shaped binders, filing cabinets, envelopes, scanners, printers, as well as programs like Adobe Acrobat and the documents they generate. […] With the right technical adjustments and systems, society can not only be salvaged but liberated.

Following the implementation of DIN 476, which consists of multiple “series” and “classes” of paper sizes, the German Institute for Standardization developed specifications for bank statements, envelopes, address fields, postcards, train tickets, binders, newspapers, business letters, margins, subject headings, and mail-sorting machinery.

With the rise of Hitler, the mandate for orderliness and efficiency was intensified, and took on an overtly sinister aspect. Standardization was associated not only with discipline but with the enhancement of surveillance. The Nazis initially required party communications to conform to DIN 476, and ultimately outlawed the use anything but A4 paper in official correspondences. […] School notebooks and other educational materials had to assume a single format, as did driver’s licenses. This attention to communication was matched in the construction industry, which the Nazis standardized and consolidated in order to quickly rearm and achieve economic independence, as well as to manage the mass of slave laborers who made this possible.

[…] Paper formats supplied the basis for the standardization of bricks, buildings, and all the furniture and fixtures in buildings; prefabricated timber components and the dimensions of sidewalks and land lots; pallets, shipping containers, and the vehicles that convey them.

The kind of employment—or, typically, self-employment—described by [Maurizio] Lazzarato requires adeptness with “cybernetics and computer control” and ends up shaping “cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.”

The work that we now associate with twenty-first-century capitalism also belongs to Ford’s assembly line and Weimar’s paper pushers, and even catalyzed those approaches to the organization of labor and the management of information. (Without the ability to mine rare metals and transport them across the world, there would be no global communications infrastructure, and so there would be no digital economy.)

As Keller Easterling argues in Extrastatecraft(2014), standardization should be the crux of discussions about the ways in which work is performed and regulated, because it enables governance to be accomplished by other means. Easterling pays particular attention to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a private and putatively apolitical association that emerged from the campaigns of engineers and industrialists after World War II.

While we recognize how the assembly line molded contemporary factories and those who labor in them, we hardly understand how A4 paper molded contemporary buildings and those who construct them.

[Andrew] Russell scrutinizes the “system builders” who create the infrastructure on which we rely, and who are “always engaged in ideological and discursive work, not merely technical work.”

Russell finds that new technologies do not necessarily drive social change; rather, they express and advance cultural and political values. The way that we labor—under the impression of autonomy but the conditions of the proletariat—is connected to the movement toward standardization led by engineers beginning in the late 1800s.

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