The Limits to Measurement

To a computer, the world is made of numbers; to a human being, it isn’t, although we sometimes fall into thinking of it that way.

This was the starting point for the fourth in this series of Västerås Conversations. Our guest was Christopher Brewster, senior lecturer in Information Technology at Aston Business School, Birmingham, whose interests span linguistics and the philosophy of language, the history of human attempts to measure and model the world, and the application of information systems to areas such as infrastructure and food supply.

As came out in the discussion, our theme was ‘the limits to measurement’ and not ‘why measurement is a bad thing’. We were in search of a vocabulary for talking about ‘the threshold of counterproductivity’, a concept taken from Ivan Illich: the point at which measurement goes from being helpful to being unhelpful.

Following this search, we found ourselves picking up threads from earlier weeks: the urge for legibility, as described by the geographer Peter C Scott in his book ‘Seeing Like A State’, parallels the desire to ‘see from above’ which Johan Redin spoke about in relation to the invention of history, with its timelines and periods, during the 19th century. Meanwhile, the inability of language to achieve precision – which Christopher talked about as ‘a feature, not a bug’ – took us back to Anthony McCann’s reflections on ‘the heart of the commons’ within Irish traditional music, the element that tends to go missing from the legible or transcribable version on which collectors have tended to focus.

We also got onto the internet of things – including the internet of toilets! – and why customer unfriendliness is the one element of a real local coffee shop that Starbucks can’t simulate. How do we create spaces where we can bring more of ourselves to work (or study, or play) than we are used to? And how do we do so safely, without simply assisting the deepening exploitation of more and more aspects of ourselves in the pursuit of the ultimate measurable goal of profit?

The next Västerås Conversation is ‘Improvising the Future’ with Alex Fradera this Wednesday, 6.30pm at ABF Västerås in CuLTUREN. For information about future events, there’s now a Västerås Group page on Facebook.

5 thoughts on “The Limits to Measurement”

  1. re measurement / electronic toilets / starbucks et al
    my laptop has a model. It is (obviously) completely digital, internally. it’s also full of bugs and buggy software (i.e. imprecise, but not by design). Finally it has a mousepad THAT DOESN’T EFFING WORK! as in, it behaves unpredictably, so I randomly (it randomly) file emails elsewhere, or in the bin, put documents or entire folders somewhere else (than where I intended) and I spend hours trying to find things that I know exist but which are not where I thought they would / should be.

    This is called evolution (chance mutations in things that may or may not be beneficial). And essentially evolution is driven by DNA (digital – 4 bits as opposed to 2, but {apparently} digital) and random mutations. DNA is a “model” distressed by life, which is just as well, because if it wasn’t (i.e. it was a perfect “model”) we’d still be whatever we were 3 billion years ago.

    So, I should celebrate the randomness of my mousepad. What I can’t control, will grow. What I can control, will stay just as it is, and I intended.

    Design imperfect machines, systems . . . and stand back and enjoy.

  2. This is one of the most fascinating dialogues I’ve heard in some time. Thanks so much Dougald for organising talks like these and making them available online.
    I just wanted to comment that it seemed to me this discussion kept bringing to mind the book – and this is going to sound cheesy – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
    I would recommend anyone interested in this very pertinent subject (especially if you’re an office drone, like me) to check out this extended meditation on qualitative and quantitative values.

    1. Hi Andrew –

      Thanks for your comment – and sorry it took me a couple of weeks to spot it. ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is a fascinating book. Its “bestseller” status put me off for years, but my dad kept telling me I had to read it and insisting that it was a serious philosophical text, not the stoner pseudo-philosophy I’d been assuming. Then five years ago a student thrust a copy into my hands at the end of an intense few days teaching at the Kaospilots school in Aarhus. I read it and sure enough, my dad was right. So yes, I fully endorse your recommendation.

      If you’ve not found your way there already, you might enjoy this part of the Reading section on my old site:

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