The Long and the Short and All Between


Of all the things that make up the borders and textures of our lives, how many do we ever consider doing without and what that might mean? Because anything we do in the least technological, there was a time when we didn’t. Often such times were so long ago we have no cultural (much less personal) memory. We live as if we have always lived a certan way, even when we know better.

Take measurement, for instance. There was surely a first time, when someone, somewhere, thought to mark down something to keep track of how many, how much, how long or short, and thus invented measurement. Since then, measuring has become part of the cultural air. We notice it when we use it, but rarely realize consciously just how ubiquitous it is. Basically, almost everything we do is measured.

“If we could not measure, then we could not observe the world around us; could not experiment and learn…it is a tool for social cohesion and control…[m]easurement has not only made the world we live in, it has made us too.”

Thus James Vincent establishes in the introduction to his history, Beyond Measure, the vital importance of what he then goes on to explore in his excellent overview.

There is a scene in one of the original Star Trek episodes where Nurse Chapel confronts her former paramour, who was presumed lost on an unexplored world and has somehow survived. But he has survived by becoming an android, a machine. He is challenged that he is no longer human and seeks to prove that he is and then runs down a list of possible tests, every single one of which involves measurement of some kind. Somehow being unable to offer a proof that does not involve mathematics of some kind suggests he has lost his essential humanness.

After coming to grips with the proofs offered in Mr. Vincent’s new book, one would be forced to ask “Well how else would he prove it other than by engaging in one of the most fundamentally human creations at hand?”

There is a resistance to accepting definitions of ourselves that involve technologies, as if artifice somehow detracts from our essence. But it is by virtue of those very things that we can recognize such distinctions and make judgments about what may or may not be human—or (especially) whether we should make such judgments.

Vincent explores the history of measurement as a social phenomenon, taking us into some unexpected byways, but with an emphasis on the struggle for standards. The bases on which reliable measures are determined are essential for trade, for the exchange of dependable information, for the very ability to communicate across borders, for, in short, harmony. He presents facts that suggest—strongly—that incommensurate measurements exacerbated if not caused revolutions, wars, the collapse of economies. Getting things “right” is a millennia-old struggle.

But that goal itself can often seem arbitrary. How does one “know” that an inch is an inch, a kilogram a kilogram, a mile a mile, or a light year what it is? Till the last couple of centuries, such questions were central, even if often ignored, but advances in finding presumably irreducible yardsticks, so to speak, have dominated official attempts to establish standards and have entered the quantum age. For the moment, at least, we have ultimate measures against which all other scales might be balanced—the speed of light at one end and Plank’s constant at the other.

We take measurement for granted, most of us, most of the time, but we could not function without it and its application at almost every level, in every niche, of social intercourse.

Beyond Measure is a fascinating read, and takes us into some places we might never know exist. It also prompts questions of limits that are sometimes uncomfortable. How much precision is enough? In the digital age, more so than ever before, this is becoming very personal. We have never really been able to escape from our fellow beings other than by comparison, but these days the metrics that delimit identity are becoming ever more detailed, and much of it would seem irrelevant. But we measure, compulsively, and out of the compulsion emerge possibilities for the kinds of conformity that can feel intrusive, undesirable. Turning our back on it is no solution. Acquainting ourselves better with the how and what and why of our cultural obsession is the reasonable approach. Knowing what to participate in, how, and perhaps recognizing our essential humanness in the numbers, that would seem the more effective—even desirable—approach. This book might be a good place to start.

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