September 15, 2014

Re-evaluating the "book burners" accusation

This past weekend, I had the pleasure to read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. If you haven't read it yourself, you absolutely must. It tells of a dystopian future in which books have been outlawed, with the public encouraged to believe that books are controversial, dangerous and harbingers of unhappiness.

Fahrenheit 451 presents this world through the eyes of Guy Montag, a "fireman" who is tasked with burning any remaining literature that's discovered. (The book's preface famously states that the title is taken from the temperature at which book paper will auto-ignite, though unsurprisingly there are questions as to the accuracy of this.)

What's particularly interesting is that even though, from a reader's perspective, the firemen are clearly part of a wider conspiracy to suppress public dissent (the populace are happy watching dumbed-down mass media broadcasts, distracting them from the looming horrors of an atomic war), the public are largely supportive of their actions. Their detractors - those who love and protect books - are the scattered few, ostracised and treated as madmen.

There was a certain irony in reading Fahrenheit 451 in light of the recent (pardon the pun) inflammatory discussions regarding ISO 29119 - in particular, the bizarrely-titled Professional Tester article, "Book burners threaten old (new) testing standard". The article implied that the context-driven testing community want to banish the idea of "effective, systematic test processes".

However, there were a few excerpts within Fahrenheit 451 which made me question which side could truly be described as being the "book burners" in the ISO 29119 debate. Here, for instance, is the fire chief's view on why free thought is dangerous:

...the word "intellectual", of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally "bright", did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. [...] We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; they are all happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.

To me, this appears to be what testing standards are trying to do: Everyone tests the same, there is a "right" and "wrong" way of approaching every situation, and we can all sleep soundly because we are all testing following the same prescribed process. Anybody who dares to question the process is seen as a threat to the status quo.

The chief goes on to explain why a young girl, encountered by Montag early in the novel, was a danger to society:

The girl? She was a time bomb. The family had been feeding her subsconscious, I'm sure, from what I saw of her school record. She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it.

He concludes his speech by reinforcing the role of the firemen:

We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don't let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.

I had to stifle a chuckle as I read this, as I could imagine it might be the mantra of many an ISO 29119 committee meeting. The standard's objectors want to ensure testing is recognised as a craft, where we can strive for excellence by exploring new ideas and techniques, on our own terms. The standard's promoters would rather that testing can be controlled, measured and dictated (with the support of courses and exams that they can provide to help ensure that we're all nicely aligned).

So I ask again: If there are to be any accusations of "book burning", aren't they being directed at the wrong side?

If you have not yet done so, I strongly encourage you to read and sign the petition to stop ISO 29119. And, for that matter, to read Fahrenheit 451 for yourselves.

Still from the film version of Fahrenheit 451

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