Metric loss

The metric system cannot measure our humanity

Iceland got author Carter Meland thinking about how the way we measure can bring us closer to or further away from objects in our environment. Flickr Jennifer Boyer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

As you travel through Iceland, the eerie moonscape of lava fields gives way to the mysteries of mist-shrouded mountain peaks. It’s a place where the tumultuous beauty of waterfalls pours into beds of volcanic ash that seem lifeless. For someone who hails from the forested, lake-filled, and (largely) flat lands of Minnesota, the Icelandic landscape is both enchanting and alienating. I feel this tension in my body, and the back and forth of the place brings me to a minor revelation about systems that assume progress is achieved through efficiency.

The metric system, used in most countries of the world, is logical and reasonable, but it exists outside of our body. My experience in Iceland reminded me of how we can measure landscapes against our expectations, our bodies and our imaginations in a way that may not be logical, but uses the things that make us human .

Traversing the Icelandic ring road in a 1999 Toyota, a vehicle without GPS, took someone like me from familiar to strange miles. Every time a road sign pointed out that an Icelandic town with a mile-long and largely unpronounceable name was 27 distant, I would quickly do the mental math – 1 mile = 1.6 km, so 27 km divided by 1.6 = approximately 17 miles – to get an idea of ​​how long it would take me to get there.

This experience of calculating the strange in the familiar will no doubt be ignored by many who argue that if only I had been born in a forward-thinking country that had long since adopted the metric system, I wouldn’t have to apply a formula memorized in the sixth grade. That may be true, but my objection to the metric system is not rooted in the accident of my birth in the United States. My objection is more to how it dehumanizes the way we interact with our landscapes.

The metric system was developed in the late 18th century in France as a way to standardize measurement; European industrialization and colonialism quickly spread it across the world. Seen as part of the universal progress promised by these economic and sociopolitical orders, the metric system gives the impression that the United States (one of only three countries in the world not to be metric) is out of step with the standards in vigor. That’s for sure. I just wonder what is lost when our forward-thinking peers make efficiency and (pretend) progress the best indicators of how to fit in with our planet. (I’m sure American culture hasn’t shunned the metric system out of concern for how it undermines our humanity.)

The meter was delimited by measuring the distance between the equator and the North Pole, then dividing it by 10 million. In this way, we measure the Earth abstractly, from above (so to speak), and then decimalize the result to arrive at the ideal unit of measurement. It’s logical, perhaps, but it’s alienating; the earth becomes an object of measurement, not a living house. Although the metric is a system based on the dimensions of the Earth, it abstracts us from the earth, from our familiar landscapes, by making us quantify them from outside of ourselves.

Our body helps us to understand the landscapes we cross, foot by foot and step by step; we take their measure simply by walking through them.

I started thinking of metrics as an alienating form of measurement as I cartwheeled through the mental gymnastics of turning kilometers into miles. But it really hit me when I tried to impress on a few plains folks back home how strange it was to see the sun still in the sky over Selfoss at 10:30 p.m. (in Minnesota, even at the height of summer, the sun barely passes 9 p.m. mail that the sun was still “three fingers above the horizon”. Three fingers, not 0.048 meters or 4.8 centimeters.

By what metric do we measure our humanity?  |  Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Author’s thumb. Courtesy of Carter Meland

Driving around the volcanic highlands of Snæfellsnes the next day, I thought of this finger measurement (imagining that it was probably a form of measurement familiar to Nordic longboaters who settled in Iceland) and I started thinking about the thumb. I knew it had long been defined as the width of a man’s thumb at the base of the fingernail. Etymologically the word “thumb” comes from the Latin uncia, which means the twelfth of something, and so it’s definitely not a decimalized form of anything. The inch, i.e. the width of an inch, is equal to one twelfth of a foot. A foot is both that weird appendage at the end of your leg and a way to measure length. you do with your feet as you move through a landscape. Our body helps us to understand the landscapes that we cross little by little, foot by foot and step by step; we take their measure simply by walking through them.

On the other hand, uh, yeah, a meter is a mental construct. This is logically significant insofar as so many Enlightenment ideals are, and it removes the task of humanity from taking stock of our world. Such disembodied ideals may have made it easier for Enlightenment-oriented thinkers and societies to subjugate people whose humanity, whose metrics, differed from their own.

My fingers were then meaningful in making sense of this strange place, Iceland. My body, rather than an abstract unit of measurement, gave meaning to the relationship between the sun and the horizon, and the three of us – me, sun and horizon – were brought together. A thumb, finger or foot makes our body part of the landscape, grounding us in place, a fitting way to measure our home, the earth.

Standing in Iceland, the blast of a geyser catches my eye, the hot steam cools to a thick mist that touches my skin if I stand downwind, and the sulfuric stench of the volcanic action that drove the explosion geyser pinches my nose. I am amazed by the sight, flushed by the mist and repelled by the smell all at once. But my foot anchors my body in the environment in a way that a meter could not. Everywhere, a meter reduces our shared house to data; everywhere, the sun three fingers above the horizon raises him to poetry.