2021 in the programming language standards’ world

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Last Tuesday I was on a Webex call (the British Standards Institute’s use of Webex for conference calls predates COVID 19) for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming language standards in the UK.

There have been two developments whose effect, I think, will be to hasten the decline of the relevance of ISO standards in the programming language world (to the point that they are ignored by compiler vendors).

  • People have been talking about switching to online meetings for years, and every now and again someone has dialed-in to the conference call phone system provided by conference organizers. COVID has made online meetings the norm (language working groups have replaced face-to-face meetings with online meetings). People are looking forward to having face-to-face meetings again, but there is talk of online attendance playing a much larger role in the future.

    The cost of attending a meeting in person is the perennial reason given for people not playing an active role in language standards (and I imagine other standards). Online attendance significantly reduces the cost, and an increase in the number of people ‘attending’ meetings is to be expected if committees agree to significant online attendance.

    While many people think that making it possible for more people to be involved, by reducing the cost, is a good idea, I think it is a bad idea. The rationale for the creation of standards is economic; customer costs are reduced by reducing diversity incompatibilities across the same kind of product., e.g., all standard conforming compilers are consistent in their handling of the same construct (undefined behavior may be consistently different). When attending meetings is costly, those with a significant economic interest tend to form the bulk of those attending meetings. Every now and again somebody turns up for a drive-by-shooting, i.e., they turn up for a day to present a paper on their pet issue and are never seen again.

    Lowering the barrier to entry (i.e., cost) is going to increase the number of drive-by shootings. The cost of this spray of pet-issue papers falls on the regular attendees, who will have to spend time dealing with enthusiastic, single issue, newbies,

  • The International Organization for Standardization (ISO is the abbreviation of the French title) has embraced the use of inclusive terminology. The ISO directives specifying the Principles and rules for the structure and drafting of ISO and IEC documents, have been updated by the addition of a new clause: 8.6 Inclusive terminology, which says:

    “Whenever possible, inclusive terminology shall be used to describe technical capabilities and relationships. Insensitive, archaic and non-inclusive terms shall be avoided. For the purposes of this principle, “inclusive terminology” means terminology perceived or likely to be perceived as welcoming by everyone, regardless of their sex, gender, race, colour, religion, etc.

    New documents shall be developed using inclusive terminology. As feasible, existing and legacy documents shall be updated to identify and replace non-inclusive terms with alternatives that are more descriptive and tailored to the technical capability or relationship.”

    The US Standards body, has released the document INCITS inclusive terminology guidelines. Section 5 covers identifying negative terms, and Section 6 deals with “Migration from terms with negative connotations”. Annex A provides examples of terms with negative connotations, preceded by text in bright red “CONTENT WARNING: The following list contains material that may be harmful or
    traumatizing to some audiences.”

    “Error” sounds like a very negative word to me, but it’s not in the annex. One of the words listed in the annex is “dummy”. One member pointed out that ‘dummy’ appears 794 times in the current Fortran standard, (586 times in ‘dummy argument’).

    Replacing words with negative connotations leads to frustration and distorted perceptions of what is being communicated.

    I think there will be zero real world impact from the use of inclusive terminology in ISO standards, for the simple reason that terminology in ISO standards usually has zero real world impact (based on my experience of the use of terminology in ISO language standards). But the use of inclusive terminology does provide a new opportunity for virtue signalling by members of standards’ committees.

    While use of inclusive terminology in ISO standards is unlikely to have any real world impact, the need to deal with suggested changes of terminology, and new terminology, will consume committee time. Most committee members tend to a rather pragmatic, but it only takes one or two people to keep a discussion going and going.

Over time, compiler vendors are going to become disenchanted with the increased workload, and the endless discussions relating to pet-issues and inclusive terminology. Given that there are so few industrial strength compilers for any language, the world no longer needs formally agreed language standards; the behavior that implementations have to support is controlled by the huge volume of existing code. Eventually, compiler vendors will sever the cord to the ISO standards process, and outside of the SC22 bubble nobody will notice.