May 28, 2009

Structural Bias -- Standards and elsewhere

How Power Corrupts: Indirect Force

Consider the following:  if you take white noise -- sound at all frequencies -- and filter it, you get bias: if you filter out all the low frequencies, you'll get noise that sounds high-pitched. If you filter all the high frequencies, you get a low-pitched sound. If you filter everything below 339 and above 441, you will hear a 440 A tone, even though you started with white noise.

Something similar happens with software. There was a time when Microsoft was accused of introducing OS bugs that impacted other people's applications more than theirs! Of course, they hotly denied this. They hate bugs! They spend an enormous amount of energy on reducing bugs.

However, bugs in its software are "noise": fallout from adding features, working on tight schedules without much time to think.  Software vendors rely on testing. Testing is a kind of filtering for bugs.  And of course, filtering is, unfortunately, selective. It is somehow more important to eliminating bugs that affect you or your friends more than it is those that affect your competitors. The result is bias with no paper-trail: you did nothing wrong, every act is above-board, open, transparent, improving software, etc.

The same thing can happen in standards! People take positions, have opinions! There are lots of ideas generated, some good, some bad, suggestions, positions, what have you. Many contributors are independents, students, and many -- most really -- are sincere employees and software developers.

However: not everyone gets funded. Not everyone has a PR person assigned to report "this week". Not everyone is friended or employed or encouraged, or have the luxury of spending half- or full-time on their life's work.

Those with an agenda, implicit or not, apply filters: fund those whose work supports their agenda, not fund those whose work is counter. Individuals who are promoting a position which is in favor will be amplified, invited to meetings, recommended, and those whose position is not in favor will not. It's natural.  Bias is endemic. No individual needs to work according to an agenda to be a player.

Of course, I'm part of this game. I work for Adobe. I don't think I shill for Adobe, and most of my view of "the Web" was formed when I worked for Xerox, or later AT&T. But I can see Adobe's point of view, the sincerity of the people who work on its software, the lunacy of some of the silly anti-Flash attitudes not based on anything other than polemics that evaporate on examination.

Does this make me biased? Not any more than anyone else in the process.  If there's bias, you've already shown it by choosing to read this.


  1. Does dismissing anti-flash attitudes as silly lunacy make you biased? No, it just makes you wrong :P (in my humble and biased opinion of course).

    Nice job of describing this endemic bias - it's a difficult thing to explain, and I'm not sure I'd have known where to begin to put that into words.