Port to Port, Shaking Up The Standards

There are certain things that are done in polite society, and we never really question them. As an example, a decanter of Port, like a dutchie, is passed ‘pon the left-hand side. Why? Who decided, how and what was in it for them? It is a little like standards and maritime informatics, why do we do what we do?

LED BY ETIQUETTE

First off, let’s finish off the Port issue. According to those wonderful people at Taylor’s, once a vintage Port is served tradition dictates the decanter should be placed on the table to the right of the host or hostess.

It should then be passed to the left, travelling around the table from guest to guest in a clockwise direction until it comes back to its starting point. There are many colourful explanations for the custom of passing the Port to the left. One theory is that the custom arose from the need to keep one’s sword arm free in case of trouble. Tipsy people with swords, what could possibly go wrong.

It is sometimes said to have originated in the Royal Navy where the rule was ‘Port to port’, meaning that the decanter should be passed to the left. The reason we do the same today is quite simple. If the decanter keeps moving in the same direction, every guest has the opportunity to enjoy the wine and no one is left out.

There are more rules. If someone is slow in moving the decanter on, they are asked if they know the Bishop of Norwich…he tended to fall asleep at dinners, and so the Port would stop circulating. Indulge me even further for a moment…I was once sat next to HRH Duke of Edinburgh at a maritime shindig. Being a little overexcited, I somehow forgot my Port and sent it Starboard, passing it back the wrong way. He seemed displeased, as only he could…Anyway, I digress.

WHEN TRADITION BECOMES THE RULES

What the Port and the direction of passing tell us, is how things have always been done tends to persist. People like certainty, they like to know what is expected and they are happy to be part of that.

People don’t like surprises (in the main), and so we see so much of what is done in shipping is based on what has gone before. We do it that way because they did it that way, and they did it that way because their forefathers did.

Things become entrenched and it can be hard to make the leap forward. Even a step forward can be a challenge sometimes. Indeed, we see that traditions are very important in shipping.

A tradition is a belief or behaviour passed down over time. The culture into which the tradition passes is also important, and shipping has a very long past indeed. Hence many different ways of thinking and of ways of doing things have persisted. That is the culture within our industry, and it has added to the rules and helped sustain them.

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO

Such a culture represents shared norms, values, traditions, and customs — and the maritime industry had long been guided by certain ways of doing things, some shaped by the need to be safe and healthy at sea, others because the money people have looked to embrace things such as finance, bills of lading and ways of providing insurance.

It may amaze us today, but the operation of ships is still very much influenced by strong cultural processes. There are very distinct rules and norms that are transmitted between seafarers and shipowners across time and generations.

Traditions represent a critical piece of our maritime rules culture. They help form the structure and foundation of our crews and companies and remind us that we are part of a history that defines our past, shapes who we are today and who we are likely to become.

It has long been thought that once we ignore the meaning of our traditions, then we are in danger of damaging the underpinning of our identity. This is why we so often see that standards evolve, and at their core, they are shaped by traditions and ultimately our culture.

GOOD AND BAD STANDARDS

Modern shipping and standards are very close bedfellows indeed. Shipping loves standards. Indeed, so much of what we do is about a standardised approach and making sure that all parties in the chain adhere to the standards that are imposed upon them. So we have shipping based on standards, and ones that are negotiated by those using them — the self-licking lollipop effect.

In theory, this should be a good thing. Alas, in reality, what can happen is that the standards aren’t actually that demanding and we find a race to the bottom and a compliance culture that can and does encourage those who can get away with doing the bare minimum to do so.

Shipping’s proud traditions have actually rested on the lowest common denominator. This means it is very hard for excellence to seen as a goal, as compliance is sufficient. Standard in some definitions means average, and that is what we so often get.

This all makes it doubly worrying when we hear such a clamour amongst the shipping industry to have standards for data and maritime informatics. Standards that will no doubt make sense for one split second, but will almost instantly be rendered useless and embarrassingly outmoded.

STANDARD ANSWERS

Very often the issue of standardisation is a poorly understood discipline. Standards can be viewed in many ways, they can be economic, policy led or technological. They can drive change or stultify it. It used to be thought that the sum of human knowledge doubled every century, and then every 25 years, now it doubles every 12 hours.

To such a backdrop of such incredible change, standards can be at one point a tool for progress, and yet can be a noose to strangle further evolution or improvements. At their best standards prevent bad things from happening, but alas they are not overly useful at helping good things come about.

Nearly every industry is affected by standards, some more so than others, and shipping is probably one of the most highly regulated. Standards are often the hallmark of a mature industry or society, as they provide levels of certainty and interoperability. You can mesh things together when everything is standardised runs the argument.

However, you only have to look at the unseemly struggle between the UK and EU on the issue of standards to see that this is something that matters a great deal. Standards matter, standards set the agenda and narrative when talk turns to whichever arena we are operating in. The power holder sets the standard.

STAGNATION BY STANDARDISATION

So, as we see, shipping loves a good standard, and alas this often means the industry has tended to be far more interested in compliance than it ever really has about excellence. This is important, as when we see standards as the lowest common denominator, then it means that progress can be very hard to come by.

The areas we are looking at, of maritime informatics and the digitalisation of shipping, are constantly moving, changing, advancing and evolving. There is a real danger in that applying standards then all the good which can come will be sacrificed for some jaundiced, sickly kind of certainty. Instead of standardisation, we need ethics and morals, and then to be let loose to develop and make magic happen.

It is not like standards are easy they aren’t. They are hard to develop, they take time, agreements and compromise. Even where this is possible, they then only provide a snapshot in time of what was possible, and which was ultimately deemed as that which should be possible.

It should be remembered that while standards can bring some degree of certainty, and of course make it easier to check and balance against, what they also do is act like a brake. They slow innovation, and at the time when all of us in maritime informatics are standing on the shoulders of giants such as Mikael Lind and his work, there is a danger that instead of seeing over the horizon at the potentially wonderful things we can develop for the industry, instead, we will just see a wall…one stamped with the word “Standard, Do not Pass”.

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Captain Stu

Making maritime informatics all it can and should be…asking questions, and finding answers.