The Falsity of Measurement  /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

Say you’re sitting at home in your living room. The furnace has been running, and the thermostat reads a steady 68 degrees. Beside your chair is a lamp mostly made of wood, but with a metal base and a plastic switch. You reach for the switch to turn the lamp on, and your hand brushes the metal base. Perhaps you have thought of this before, but in that moment it is impressed on you that all the parts of the lamp seem to be different temperatures. The metal feels cold, the wood warmer, the plastic switch even warmer. The lamp has been off (so it hasn’t been generating heat) and the house has been 68 all day. What accounts for the difference in felt temperature in the parts of the lamp?

The engineers among us know that heat is not a matter of fixed degrees, but of capacity and exchange. The insulation values and specific heat of various materials are carefully cataloged and inform our use of them. But from day to day, we rarely think about capacity and exchange—that is, about transience and uniqueness. We rarely ask what is measurement? And are measurements an accurate account of the real world?

I’ve been thinking recently about the falsity of measurement. Our daily lives in our industrialized society depend almost entirely on the numbers we assign to phenomena, and rarely on our direct experience. If my phone tells me it’s 35 degrees outside, I get my coat. If my clock tells me it’s 8 in the morning, I get ready for work. Noon no longer corresponds to the sun crossing the center of the sky, but to the number 12. A piece of land is no longer known by its geographic features, but by its square miles or mineral wealth.

We can see that this transition from use of measurement to dependence on measurement happened recently—over the last two centuries or so—and it is clearly evidenced by the map of the United States. The earliest states (mostly) have rivers and mountains for borders—natural features. They were lived-in, settled places. But as the nation expanded during the transition from measure-use to measure-dependence, the shape of the states was less and less set by landscape and more and more by the handy fictions of latitude and longitude, bearing almost no relationship to geography. The idea of “rectangular states” should seem oxymoronic; that it doesn’t is another example of our universal acceptance of numbers in place of objects.

What has recently impressed me (and not in a good way) is the current rush to assign numbers to people. How many Facebook users is “proof” of the usefulness of Facebook. Credit score is “proof” of a well-adjusted life. Loss of a Social Security card means a denial of basic services and rights.

I fear the flood of measurement, not so much because it dehumanizes us, but because it seems to be the result of a previous dehumanization. We were overtaken even before we realized the need for war.

My thoughts on this subject are currently expanding. I don’t know if there is a problem here to be solved, or if a solution should be sought corporately or individually. But what I do see is that we are all, all day long, surrounded by artificial objects, by cars, roads, houses, artificial lights. We interact with computers projecting artificial images. Now that I think about it, if I watch a movie or television show, and compare the number of people in the show to the number of people I actually interact with during the day, then it’s likely I see and hear as many artificially-reproduced people as those I speak with face-to-face. And this imbalance informs (or misinforms) my imagination, my emotions, my hopes and expectations.

Are clocks and thermostats ultimately inaccurate because they cannot reveal true relationships? Are stock prices and popular brands just more fake news? Is social media an elaborate form of measurement, such that we collude in our own rapid quantification? Are the borders of nations a true portrait of the genius and beauty of culture?

I have many questions, few answers. But I am going for a walk now to feed the ducks at my neighborhood pond. They may give me some insight.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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