Measuring the Immeasurable

Good, Fast & Cheap, a measure of things. Designed by Rhys Newman, modeled & machined by Simon James. A useful epistemological wrench — a conversation piece to discuss the measures of things and the things lost and gained when some things gain priority over others. It’s a wonderful, crucial instrument that shifts perspectives hopefully towards more habitable creations.

Everybody needs Money. That’s why they call it Money.
(From “Heist” by David Mamet. Danny DeVito playing Mickey Bergman.)

In the Laboratory’s Bureau of Instrumentation, Weights-and-Measures and Ways-and-Means, we’ve been curious for a time, and more so recently, about the history of quantification and, as well, why numbers as such have a kind of primacy over other things that are more qualitative. Most specifically, why do we measure the things we measure, and why do some things get to be measured while other things do not get measured, or are seen as immeasurable?

This question is a thorough-going one in the effort to find other measures that can be prioritized, perhaps even more so than the things we consider without even thinking about where these “natural” (they never are..) measures come from. For example, we measure things designed based on such things as their monetary cost, and how much profit can be obtained. With this measure, to simplify things, many principles that would be invested in a design get tossed out. The accountant or the engineer would sooner shrug in such a circumstance — this is the way it should be. I want to consider the “natural” way of such things, and consider how other sorts of measures can be prioritized that are not necessarily about money first, but always first about creating more habitable future worlds. What are the other measures of things that maybe previously have been thought of as “immeasurable” or incapable of being quantified? Thus, this interest in how things got to be the way they are. What are the measures of quantities and where did they come from? How could they be different? What things can be designed/made/prototyped the experiment with other measures?

There must be a variety of histories here, skirting up against the science of calculation and computation and close to the Laboratory’s interests in the history of things, such as sciences, design, technology and always deeply imbricated and layered and inextricably tied to all of these things — the histories of cultures.

Where to start?

Our Studio Library Day reading book last month was Alfred W. Crosby’s intriguing “The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600” which I’m happy Manuel Lima mentioned at his talk during SHiFT 2008 in Lisbon. It took a holiday to actually finish the book, which lead me in a zillion other vectors and converged in a recent interest in the meaning and technology of money. It now takes me early mornings when fresh and not muddle-headed to re-read it for the over-arcing traces of Crosby’s perspective.

I’ll have my overdue book report on “The Measure of Reality”, but first a short trek down the footnote rabbit hole to Joel Kaye‘s essay “The impact of money on the development of fourteenth-century scientific thought” found in the Journal of Medieval History 14(1988), p. 251-270. (Wonderful these academic essays tucked away in journals nearly impossible for anyone except academics to get a hold of, truly. Sadly, the availability of this essay is quite limited unless you have an “in” at a university or such, or a particularly flush public library system somewhere. So much for the academician’s edict to create and circulate knowledge.)


No matter. Onward…

Continue reading Measuring the Immeasurable

Who Will Make The Bricks?

John-Rhys Newman’s exploration of New Measures of Things in a series of conventional measuring instruments that act as kinds of epistemological wrenches, changing perceptions and confusing the traditions of quantification. Very intriguing objects. I’m curious about the history of measurement and quantification. There’s lots there. I find myself knee deep in the muck of Medieval history. More to come. Want one?

The Near Future Laboratory’s Overseas Bureau of Avuncular Insights and Apropos Turns of Phrase found this clattering off the network’s teletypes — a wonderful short dispatch from Bruce Sterling referring in high-style to the challenges confronting our forward-facing resources for imagining new, near future worlds. Science-fiction has a history; hasn’t always been around. It participates in imagining the future — the title of the essay is this conflation of Design and Fiction, suggestive of this point that fiction can participate in design. But, ultimately, the science-fiction-design trio results in imaginary things. Things that are never hewn beyond the words and the story and the imagination. They are, therefore, fantastic “crap.” Design fiction sits somewhere in between science-fiction and the materialization of the imagination. It is tied more closely to the stuff that appears in the world. You can tell because it resonates closely with either things now, things about to happen, or things that are discussed and activated. Or, the design fiction becomes a reference point — a way of describing something that, oh — some geeks are tooling in the laboratory.

What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable.

Design fictions of the best sort are like design & style manuals for making things. They lead to conversations like this — “Yeah, it’s kinda like that thing? The reputation servers in that book, um…Distraction? Oh, you didn’t read it? Well, you should. It’ll help us talk about what we’re trying to do. It’s got some cool things in it.”

What are the constraints to imagining new kinds of future worlds? Writing is constrained by language, which may have been the literati’s excuse for not creating a future imaginary worthy of our time, money and attention to materialize.

Design, by contrast, is less verbal. Design is busily inventing new ways to blow itself apart. Design is taking more risks with itself than literature. That is why contemporary design feels almost up to date, while literature feels archaic and besieged.

Design and literature don’t talk together much, but design has more to offer literature at the moment than literature can offer to design. Design seeks out ways to jump over its own conceptual walls-scenarios, user observation, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, critical design, speculative design. There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented.

Now, talking again? With a more common landscape brought to us via digital networks, digital data, digital communications and sharing? Could that be the effective culture of the Internet? To bring together language and material? Expressive of both in a way. Not just stories, but their material, lived in the world?

Perhaps apropos of the recent Milan Design Week chatter, the way I read this nice compact essay is that the vector cross-product of a failed capitalism with an inability of (design/engineering/science/technoculture-writ-large) to imagine a future-forward equals variously trouble or opportunity. The opportunity being — new kinds of “bricks.” New units of assemblage to create more habitable (broadly — sustainable, creative, articulate, mindful, generous, etc.) future worlds. We need new measures of meaning. New systems of quantification that do not ultimately, in the end, result in an unbalanced equation.

Read the whole thing here. I’ve excerpted my favorite part below. (Well, it’s short enough of an essay that the whole thing can be a favorite part, but this is what this morning’s coffee-sit-down favored.)

We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique, or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, floating in a generally tainted cultural atmosphere.

These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow-not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be because they were both born with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in 80 years ago?

There is much thoughtful talk of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and the transdisciplinary. These are buzzwords, language that does not last.

What we are really experiencing now is a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world.

Even money, the almighty bottom line, the ultimate reality check for American society, has tripped over its own infrastructural blinders, and lost its ability to map value. The visionaries no longer know what to think-and, by no coincidence, the financiers can no longer place their bets.

I scarcely know what to do about this. As Charles Eames said, design is a method of action. Literature is a method of meaning and feeling. Hearteningly, I do know how I feel about this situation. I even have some inkling of what it means.

Rather than thinking outside the box-which was almost always a money box, quite frankly-we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.

The winds of the Net are full of straws. Who will make the bricks?

Continue reading Who Will Make The Bricks?