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…

Good, Fast & Cheap, a measure of things. Designed by Rhys Newman, modeled & machined by Simon James.

I came across the Kaye essay during a passage in “The Measure of Reality” where a point is made that the medieval brainiac Nicole Oresme (1323 -1382) wished to make the case, as he was advisor to several Kings of France, that the debasement of coin did not serve the public good. In other words, the artificial creation of inflation was not a good thing, according to Oresme. He saw money as part of the public commons and its manipulation in value was controversial. But, the royals controlled the minting of coin — early days Federal, or Monarchical Reserve Bank of a sort. A prototype central bank, controlled by the monarch. If the King needed to buy more broad swords, arrows, horses and men for the various wars run wild, stamping out more coins gave him more money. The downside is that the coins are debased in value, ultimately impoverishing the larger society.

(Parenthetically, inflation is one of those things that mystifies me. I cannot fathom how something becomes more expensive by small percentages over generations. Why was a cup of coffee once 5 cents and now is 5 dollars? Does it only cost more because prices are raised just…to raise prices? Where does it all start? If we say that the cost of a loaf of bread goes up, so the guy who grows the coffee beans is going to demand a little bit more annual income then I have to ask — why did the price of making a loaf of bread go up? Was it because the bread maker saw his price of a cup of coffee go up and, heck…he’s not going to go without his morning coffee, so he’ll charge a little bit more to those who buy his bread so he can afford that cup of coffee. But, wait..why did the price of the coffee go up?

Baffling. We’re waiting for your explanations to clear the “recursion level exceeded-202” error on the Laboratory’s mainframe.

Is it just that someone somewhere in the hierarchy of money flows decides, like the royals of 14th century France, that they want a little bit more quantity of the stuff? Like..someone asks for a slightly larger salary, or charges a little bit more for that loaf of bread, and then the “consumer price index” goes up a bit and then things are inflated? I really want to know how this all works.)

The reference to this point of 14th century French inflationary “policies” was found on page 69 of “The Measure of Reality”, and points to the Kaye essay. So..I read it.

It’s actually quite fascinating. In it, Kaye (who apparently has written masterfully on this sort of thing, so that’s another rabbit hole) describes his take on the history of quantification — what are the ways that 14th century men (they were..) started measuring and numbering and quantifying things?

In the 14th century, there was a frenzy of quantification. Numerical rules and mathematical methods were applied to the solution of philosophical questions of all sorts. These were, literally, “The Calculators” — those men who involved themselves in the science of calculationes. “They were those whose habit it was to inquire into the quantitative or pseudoquantitative aspects of phenomena and processes. Anneliese Maier 1982:149)

At this time, things of quantity and quality were quite distinct, but the frenzy takes hold in a variety of ways. Natural philosophers and mathematicians search for “ways to measure and express mathematically the successive increases or decreases in the intensities of qualities” and thereby gradually transform things of quality to things of quantity through the efforts and activities to measure. In their science of calculating whatever they could get their paws on to measure, they, in these activities, began to transform what was a quality into a thing that could be measured in ratio to some fixed quantity. The effort itself of quantifying things brought about the milieu of quantification of things.

“The new possibilities of measurement pioneered by this school in the area of velocities, forces, resistances, and other aspects of motion, proved so exciting, and fell on such fertile intellectual soil, that soon not only things that had never been measured before, but things that have never been measured since, were subjected to a kind of quantititative analysis..

“Every ‘quality’ that could be imagined in some way as an intensive magnitude (that is, capable of increase or decrease), whether physical or mental in nature, was considered just as measurable as a patial magnitude.

“Such qualities as love, faith, race, the strength of the will, the power of the intellect and even the depth of religious vision were all seen as ‘divisible according to intensity’ and thus measurable in the same way as a physical quality such as heat.” (Kaye, 1988, p. 255)

It’s kinda crazy, but effectively the activity of measuring things leads to things that become measurable. Not everything took hold, and this is the point Kaye makes. While other historians have preferred to look to the smarty-pants natural philosophers, working toy-problems and in their solitary mode of pondering and so forth of the day — the academicians and thinkers and thought-experimentalists and such — Kaye turns his attention to larger societal activities. He looks at the monetization that is going on in the society at large, in the marketplaces, on the streets buzzing with trade.

Money is taking hold as a mechanism of exchange. It is becoming the great pivot upon which exchange can happen because it balances out inequities and is divisible into appropriate quanta suitable to the satisfactory completion of individual trade.

It’s crazy to imagine from where we are today, but before money, trade was literally the trade of things, not an exchange of a thing with something fungible, like money. If I only had a, say, a plump, prolific farm animal with me to trade for something, chances were that I was not going to trade it for a mere handful of carrot seeds, or the pint of ale I thirsted for. And I couldn’t exactly say — look..I’ll give you this sow’s left hock for an ale. Sows, unlike the new money, were not divisible, at least not before the butchers, and a butchered sow can only be cooked and eaten, which means it won’t ever make little piglets, which is where its real value lies.

Good, Fast & Cheap, a measure of things. Designed by Rhys Newman, modeled & machined by Simon James.

This period of monetization allowed everything — large and valuable, small and insignificant — to have a price; everything can be sold with this new instrument of exchange. It must have been a heady, crazy time in the marketplaces with this new instrument of exchange established.

“The money price of a commodity represented the extension of a common, objective system of measurement into what had formerly been (under barter) a realm of subjective valuation. The price of an object is, simply, the expresson of its value numerically, the quantification of its quality.”

Money becomes the unifying equalizer, whatever the quantity, between anything, arbitrarily. We learn more about what money was at this time through Kaye’s analysis of what Nicole Oresme is working on. Oresme is working on an extended tract on a number of topics related to money, including its origins, morality of money, religious connotations of usury, material characteristics of money — how much gold and silver it should contain, etc. Oresme sees money as an “instrument” — a mechanism that can overcome the subjectivity of value. It has been noted that he called money an instrumentum equivalens — “..a divisible scale that enabled goods of diverse value to be measured against each other and to find equality.”

What seems to happen is money becomes — Money, the thing-in-itself that can equate and quantify and balance. It is very much a 14th century technology that overcomes the inconveniences of the bartering process and the attendant problem of deciding and agreeing upon the value of goods and services to be bartered. It is an instrument of trade, an artifice invented to be a ruler that measures value. It created a kind of order upon the complex problems of valuation. It simplified, cleaned up and created a common measure.

With this monetization happening all around, and the simplifications to exchange, the cleaning up of the barter system, it is not surprising that other kinds of measures were sought after. If money could solve the problems of trade and exchange at the time, what other instruments of measurement and quantification could be found?

Therein developed a fascination with the possibilities of measurement and quantification and desires to bring a common system of measures to a whole variety of qualities — heat, whiteness, attraction, human friendship, joy and pain, intellect, religious vision, healing, hypnotism.

Lots of crazy measures of what we call qualitative things. This is what was happening in the marketplace with monetization. Very different things were “ordered” and disciplined into a new, common categorization. This is the the measuring technique of money, as an instrument. From shoes to salvation (as such was to come from indulgences from the Church), from a sack of pepper to an hour of time (which introduced a whole new episteme of value) — these were all brought into common measure by money.


Oresme’s work on the “latitude of forms” is an important contribution to the thinking on the quantification of qualities. He sketched drawings to show the variation of things, which was a dramatic simplification of the philosophy of the form of things. “Latitude of forms” refers to the breadth of a quality, as in its variability. (Variability with time need not be the reference, although it appears that many examples describing what Oresme was tinkering with here refer to things that one immediately considers varying in time.)

These geometrical drawings provided a simple visualization that revealed the “extension” of a quality versus its intensity at each point. Thus, for example, the speed of a cannon ball can be revealed with its speed being the height of lines over time. The process of performing these measurements effectively performs a kind of epistemological transformation, wrenching the “Form” of the thing (its qualities) into a quantifiable state, through the accumulation (adding-up) of the area under these graphs in order to produce new material for consideration.

The canonical example of a rock dropped from a suspended height comes to mind. It may once have been that it is the rock’s “Form” or quality or character to fall to the earth because it is of the earth and likely returns to its sphere of origin, which made perfectly good reasoning in the medieval. Now, the travel of the rock (and the cannon shot, and the arrow’s flight, etc.) becomes something measurable in its “breadth” or extension (to which “latitude” refers), and whose travel is measured in time and various other factors (such as angle of projection, which was significant for obtaining varying distances). The “Form” of things can become quantified. Oresme’s geometrical sketches provide a tool for thinking and transforming the way one considers what a thing is. That is, we think of quantity quickly in many matters, largely because we were transformed into beings who saw quantity as a quick way toward describing what things were.

There are a variety of implications and conclusions proper to the Laboratory’s objective of following its curiosity.

First as pertains to money:

Money brought order into complex problems of valuation; simplifying, cleaning up, creating a common measure of value.

Fixed, absolute measures. Is it best if money remains fixed, but of course it does not. I believe this is something Oresme wanted to create — and is why he referred to money as part of the public commons. It is curious to Imagine other measures that are part of the “public commons” but do not remain fixed. What would a length measuring ruler that suffered inflation and recession look like? How would it change our perception of measures, quantities and such?

Money and the hidden mechanics, manipulation: The technological form of money – its mechanism – is hidden, unlike many other technologies of the time (wind mill, mechanical clock, etc.)

Money only works in ratio, relative to things amongst themselves. It is not a thing-in-itself; not an absolute measurement. It was a measurement that was meant to facilitate action — exchange — and make equalities.
And as pertains the quantity measure of things

Latitude of forms applied to creating other scales: The latitude of forms evolves to loose its sense of abstraction “from its early definition as the conceptual range of possible increase or decrease of a given quality, to its physical identification as the actual intensity of a quality at a given point.”
(* the latitude of forms transforms quality to its quanta; its a transforming “epistemological wrench” of sorts; a measuring tool that transforms the way something appears, or offers an opportunity to measure the form of something by investing quantities of some sort into it, perhaps in the medieval these were not first-and-foremost what the thing meant, or how it was received. *)

It was believed by Oresme that any quality subject to change in intensity could be measured; the line was the best instrument for doing this, in ratio.
(* correlation with the “quant” activities in financial markets? reliance on complex, indecipherable formula? *)

Why do I blog this? There is a worthwhile historical question here that points out that the measures of things have not always been as they are. That the measurements we take for granted as essential things came from somewhere, and were not passed down as “natural”, derived from the invisible nowhere before time. There is a history to the ways that some things get to count “more” than other things; that some things are quantifiable and other things are not.

Things that are quantifiable have not always been as they are — as quantifiable things. They become so, through the intensity of efforts put to them by those who are taught to prioritize counting things through whatever mechanisms they deem useful toward this goal, which are always social mechanisms, including spreadsheets, mathematics and formula. This is done to bring order to things that look as though they are not ordered, or in a mess. This kind of ordering must necessarily factor out certain characteristics that may in fact be desirable. In the effort to quantify, what is lost as a kind of excess that cannot be factored as a quantity?

Why would one be intrigued by this? Or, more to the point — why does the Near Future Laboratory’s Bureau of Instrumentation, Weights-and-Measures and Ways-and-Means care? We care because we believe that there is the time now to prioritize other measures of things, at least in many circumstances. The quantity theory of money, for example, may not best suit the creation of habitable futures, or it may even not suit the creation of material things which can obtain their value not in the amount of dollar bills they can be traded for, but in the quality of the experiences they create, whatever those experiences may be.

* Can design make decisions exclusive of the quantity of money theory?
* Can an operation create things without quantifying its future in terms of margins of profit?
* Can we look at a falling rock and marvel at its destiny, rather than the quantities measured in its velocity curve? Or fire, considering how it reaches for the sun?

2 thoughts on “Measuring the Immeasurable”

  1. As long as money is a primary quantifier in our world, most other measurements don’t need to change. Variation is reflected by the value expressed in money. That’s your ruler changing, right there. Perception of measures and quantity change through their monetary conversion rate.

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