The Technocratic Standard-Setting Urge

The Thin Green Line writes:

But other problems have such a straightforward solution the only question is, why haven't we implemented it already?So it is with the phone charger (H/T Mother Jones). How many old ones do you have kicking around in a drawer? If you're loyal to a particular phone, you may even have several identical chargers. Because they're electronic, you're also burdened with disposing of them properly lest they leach their toxins into some poor, unsuspecting landfill.

Not only that but chargers use a good bit more electricity than they need to and are vampires"”meaning they continue to draw power even when they're not, you know, charging.

Now imagine a world where not only did phone chargers use less energy, but they were universal, meaning any charger fit any phone. That would mean about 600 million fewer chargers each year stashed in drawers around the world and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 to 24 million tons a year"”not even to mention e-waste.

The UN's International Telecommunication Union has approved this universal dreamboat of a charger. It will use half as much energy on standby. Samsung, Nokia and Motorola have already agreed to use it. Of course, they're hemorrhaging business to BlackBerry and Apple...no word yet from those guys.

I wrote:

There are at least two problems with this.  The first is that consumers are all different.   A lot of cell phones (and other devices like my kindle) are standardizing on a mini-USB connection.  Should I use the UN's solution, which is likely inferior?  Why?  Most of the time I don't even travel with a charger, I plug the mini-USB into my computer to charge.  That way I only have 1 charger on the road, for my computer.  You want me to carry 2, in the name of having fewer chargers?   You might say, "well, I hadn't thought of this situation," and I would say, "that's the point - you can't, there are 6 billion of us individuals out there."

The second problem is innovation.  Who says that innovation won't demand a different type of connection in 2 years?  Do you really want your technology gated to some working group at the UN?  Go back in time and imagine the government locking in a standard on something.  We still would have 801.11a wireless only, or cars would still all have crank starts (but they would all turn the same direction!) or cars would all have the same size wheels.  If the UN had invented something 3 years ago, it would have been power only and not data.  Today, most cell phones have power connections and connectors that double as data ports.

There is always a technocratic urge in messy changing technology markets to swoop in and mandate a standard from above, even while the technology is still evolving.  The problem is that neither you nor anyone else knows everything.  Hayek described this information problem well but you make it abundantly clear on this site you have no familiarity with Hayek.  You extrapolate what seems to be a good solution from your narrow knowledge, but cause many of us to sub-optimize because you did not anticipate how I use my charger or what technology some cell phone manufacturer today may be developing that requires a different kind of charger standard.

  • http://evilredscandi.blogspot.com Evil Red Scandi

    Interestingly enough Apple has already standardized the connectors used over the last few generations of iPods and for all of the iPhones (the cradle shape may be different, but the plug and electrical / data connections are identical).

  • Raven

    I think you protest too much. Companies make a lot of money if they can lock people into buying custom accessories for their equipment so they have an incentive to avoid standardization when they can - the ability to innovate has nothing to do with it. Standards only emerge if there is huge consumer demand or government mandates can overcome the desire to lock consumers in.

    By banding together behind the ITU standard Samsung, Nokia and Motorola are hoping to create a customer demand for a solution that will allow them to recover some of their lost marketshare. Playing up the green angle is simply part of the marketing package. This is the free market in operation. I realize that you fear that government mandates will follow but it is not clear that they will since a similar story has played out many times in many areas and sometimes the standard wins - sometimes it does not.

  • morganovich

    an interesting case study here might be cellular systems. the US had a heterogeneous voice system in which carriers chose wavelengths and encoding schemes. this led to numerous compatibility issues early on. the EU had one choice (GSM) and their voice system clearly outperformed the US. (however much of this is due to using the 900mhz spectrum and the large resultant cell sites, and not because of GSM per se)

    where it gets interesting is if we ask: were they lucky or smart? as we move to 3G, the U has been way ahead of europe and benefited from interim technologies like EDGE as well. suddenly, the monolithic EU model lacks the attractive plans and structure to make data and cellular web surfing really take off.

    take your iphone to germany and see how many of the features you are sued to don't work...

    i think the takeaway here is that enlightened despotism is always the most efficient system assuming they make the right decisions. however, the fact is that they won't, and that once they begin to slow innovation and make bad choices, they will hold a market back so dramatically that it's best to keep it in the hands of a market, especially in fast moving space where disruptive technology and new demands are difficult to predict.

  • Allen

    If the UN is as good at this as they have been at getting Eritrea and Ethiopia to like each other or bringing about an official end to Korea's civil war, I don't think we'll ever see this get off the ground.

  • K

    Nothing wrong with agreeing on standards. The key word being "agreeing" not "forcing." Industry agrees to standards, government forces them.

    The UN will try to entangle any activity, no matter how small, with rules, standards, mandates, etc. It is the religion of their bureaucracy.

  • Justin

    The standard that the UN "approved" _is_ a mini-USB port.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33448863/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets

    The UN hasn't really done anything, except try to take credit for what appears to be a naturally developing standard. My Blackberry has a mini-USB charge port for example, since long before this "standard" was created, and despite the Thin Green Line's comment that they are not participating.

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris Byrne

    Actually, sadly, no it's NOT mini-USB, it's micro-usb.

    Micro-usb is far inferior in maximum bandwidth, electrical interference, and physical strength.

    However, mini-usb is too large for some of the smallest phones and headsets (and they're getting smaller). So, they have to go with the smallest thing they can standardize on, but that will still carry data for smartphone sync etc...

    I'm not happy about the choice of micro-USB as a connector; but I'm more than happy with USB as a protocol. The great thing about it, is that you can adapt any connector to any other connector; so really the connector is irrelevant from the non-device side.

  • Max

    "Because they’re electronic, you’re also burdened with disposing of them properly lest they leach their toxins into some poor, unsuspecting landfill."

    I am not an electrical engineer, but aren't most chargers some ac-dc converters? So what exactly "oozes" into an unsuspecting landfill?
    Also, while "making plastic" does indeed generate CO2, what about the actual recycling part? As far as I know that is quite energy intensive, too, because plastics are usually "downgraded".

    There are several standards that are convenient (USB-chargers) that are almost market dominant, but that's one side of the connection issue. Most mobile devices (cellphones etc.) have different charger plug-ins, because they have different designs. So, there is no way to reduce this, other than to create the Trabi auf cellphones and mp3-players and what-other-product-you-can-name. Meaning, government would have to select one company to supply everyone...

  • epobirs

    I think you're a bit confused about WiFi standards. 802.11a isn't what comes before 802.11b, despite the way the designation appears. They operate in different portions of the RF spectrum. 802.11a equipment was harder to produce and more costly, so it was much longer in getting established and it still occupies a small niche in overall WiFi usage. But it has its uses and advantages for the right situation.

  • Mark

    I hate it when eco mags say that cell phone chargers are vampires sucking energy even when not charging. That may have been the case 5 years ago, but most new phones have the much smaller digital charges which turn off when not in use. It is the large cubic transformer chargers that still use energy when not in use.

    And who keeps their cell phone for more then five years or buys the same model over and over. I don't think you can even find the same model any more from one year to the next!

  • J Burns

    Easier solution -- systems like the iGo or Callpod Chargepod with replaceable tips. I have a Chargepod so when my wife and I travel we have one charger that handles multiple cell phones/Blackberrys at the same time. Buy a new phone, just buy a new adapter if necessary and you're set. No UN mandate, no need to standardize, and no worry about what the future might bring. More bureaucratic solutions looking for a problem.

  • http://freedomactionnow.wordpress.com ZZMike

    A while back I wanted to get a basic DC power converter for my CD player. The only ones I could find had 5 different sized plugs arranged around a cube.

    The great thing about standards is that there are so many of them.

    "Should I use the UN’s solution, which is likely inferior?"

    Likely? Based on our experience with that noble institution, I'd say definitely. I don't suppose anyone can explain what the heck the UN is doing mucking about in the charger business?

  • happyjuggler0

    I don’t suppose anyone can explain what the heck the UN is doing mucking about in the charger business?

    It's called "mission creep".

  • K

    As epobirs noted, the 802.11 standards are not as they appear to the casual observer. There is no sequence of development such as a, then b, then c....

    And no inherent relationship between a, b, or g.... The letters are just an indexing scheme. The fact that a, b, and g cover three standards we useful for home wireless is a coincidence.

    Aside: the standards committee skipped "i" and "l" to avoid confusion with one. And "o" to avoid confusion with zero. And "x" was left as a generic term in the way that advertisers refer to "brand x."

  • perlhaqr

    Mark: I bought Nokia phones for a long, long time. Not the same model, but they all used the same charger.

  • Jody

    There is no sequence of development such as a, then b, then c…

    Well that is the sequence in which the workgroups are started but start dates are not completion dates. So it's very easy for a later starting amendment to finish before an earlier amendment.

    And let's hear it for 802.11ac and 802.11ad! 802.11 is much too important to be bound by a single pass through the alphabet...

    Also FWIW, 802.11a amended the original 802.11 standard. Who else misses their infrared or frequency hopping WLAN? (not me.)

  • CT_Yankee

    I don’t suppose anyone can explain what the heck the UN is doing mucking about in the charger business?

    After WWII it was understood that niether the Leage of Nations nor the Power Rangers had what it took to enforce cease fires and Mini/Micro-USB protocalls. When Buffy the Vampire Charger Slayer rips that thing right out of your wall, you will wish you had complied.

  • Michael

    "an interesting case study here might be cellular systems. the US had a heterogeneous voice system in which carriers chose wavelengths and encoding schemes. this led to numerous compatibility issues early on. the EU had one choice (GSM) and their voice system clearly outperformed the US. (however much of this is due to using the 900mhz spectrum and the large resultant cell sites, and not because of GSM per se)"

    Carriers didn't get to choose wavelengths or encoding schemes. To promote competition in America, the government dictated what was open to carriers. Radio Shack is a good example. When digital cell phones first came out, Radio Shack carried Sprint, but was prohibited for carrying Sprint in all of its stores. So 70% of Radio Shacks carried Sprint and the rest carried what the government told them to.

    I would bet the carriers would have gone with GSM, but the FCC had a problem with the 900mhz spectrum. That spectrum was used by cordless home landlines. The 900mhz spectrum is a better spectrum for wireless devices and the government forced cordless landline phones above the 2400mhz spectrum and opened the 900mhz spectrum to cell phone carriers.

  • jay

    I am very skeptical of this 15-24M tons saved (wonderful what numbers you come up with when you all the assumptions in your favor and multiply it out by unrealistic quantities).

    the truth is, though that many of the chagers have intelligence built into the charger to rapidly cycle the battery. This intelligence is very battery specific and mandating a single charge configuration would inhibit future devices from take advantage of evolving battery technology.

  • http://maxedoutmama.blogspot.com MaxedOutMama

    The common element in so many of these top-down brilliant theories which have awful factual outcomes is a lack of respect for complexity.

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