Sacred Measures and Measures of Pure Abstraction: A Socio-Political History of Quantitative Objectivity

This is a section from my paper for the 4th Biannual Integral Theory Conference in Sonoma, CA. July 2015: “Desperate Measures: Global Crises of Measurement and Their Meta-Theoretical Solutions”  [See the abstract here.]

Origins: The Mysticism, Mythology, and Politics of Ancient Measurement Practices

The relationship between social justice and measurement goes back to the origins of human civilization. Humans have almost always been engaged in measurement practices of various types, even prior to the creation of cities, agriculture, and complex divisions of labor. The very earliest human artifacts showing evidence of tool making and complex cooperation all show that even pre-historic humanity practiced basic forms of measurement. Constructing a spear, arrowhead, or shelter, creating a musical instrument or article of clothing, all require engaging in measurement practices. These earliest forms of measurement were often informal, intuitive, and conducted by simply referencing the dimensions of one’s own body (e.g., palm span, arm length, foot, etc.). In fact, all ancient cultures had measurement practices that were modeled on the dimensions and proportions of the human body. That the common root of all measurement can be found in the relationship between the human body and the natural world accounts for the intriguing coherence and seeming mystical unity between architectural sites of ancient cultures that are widely dispersed in time and space (Michell, 1972 [Book is pictured]). The simple elegance and beauty of many ancient sites can be attributed to their conformity with certain idealized proportions of the human body, usually inspired by (also cross-culturally common) mythologies about the parallels between the dimensions of the human form and the sacred structure of the universe itself.

Early in human history these anthropocentric measures became institutionalized and made part of the dynamics of religious authority and political power, especially in the first great empires that emerged in the Nile, Tigris, and Indus river valleys (Mumford, 1967; Tavernor, 2007). It was trade, massive construction projects, and agricultural planning that fueled these first large-scale standardizations and enforcements of measurement practices. The basic units of measurement still made reference to the human body, but they were no longer allowed to vary according to each individual’s unique body and context. Instead, a single measure came to be decreed as valid throughout the land. For example, making the length of one specific foot (typically understood to be that of the King or Emperor) into the official foot.

While it was sometimes literally true that these sanctioned units were actual representations of the physical dimensions of the King’s body, more often it was symbolic and mythic. The institutionalization of measures referencing the King’s body modified and reinforced the myth of the sacred political microcosm-macrocosm: the body of the king and the body politic form a mystical unity, so the kingdom is built and run according to his bodily specifications (Wilber, 1981; Kula, 1989). “The union of mystery and authority in one body was essential to the survival of kingship, and measure was a physical manifestation of both” (Tavernor, 2007 p. 34). From the construction of the Great Pyramids to the building of Roman roads (straight as an arrow, with perfect uniformity of width), empires were built on standardized measures and their enforcement, accompanied by ideologies suggesting that the official measures are of legitimate and unassailable (often divine) origin. The close connections between empire, measurement, and ideology continue to this day, a theme I will explore further below.

Taxation and marketplace transactions are also dependent on measures. This is another reason measurement practices have been codified and enforced by centralized political and religious powers, beginning early in the ancient world. Bushels (of oats), bales (of hay), areas (of land), and dimensions (of houses), have long been essential factors in the determining rates of taxation and equity of exchange in the marketplace.[1] In ancient urban centers known for their trade and commerce, there were usually officials sanctioned by the powers ruling the city to regulate measurement practices in the marketplace. Tax collectors were always equipped with official measurement tools in order to resolve disputes over the size of bushels or the area of a farm field. Certain cities and their administrators became know for fair and just measurement practices, others for unjust ones. The connections between measurement and justice were apparent to the ancients, so much so that many of the first written legal documents (e.g., the constitutions of the Greek city-states) included extensive references to the regulation and standardizing of measures (Kula, 1989).

Given the primacy of measurement in early civilizations, it is clear why measurement tools and practices became seen as markers of justice and civility. Measurement instruments often embodied in their construction the most sophisticated technologies of their day (incredibly precise metallurgy is needed to make scales and standard weights, as well as rods and other measures of length). Measures also played an essential role in the construction of monuments that (still) stagger the imagination. They also enable complex coordinations on trade and can foster fairness and mutual understanding in the marketplace. The difference between civilization and barbarism came to be seen as the difference between who has good measures and who does not.

It is no surprise then that ancient religious texts (especially the Bible) abound with reflections on measurement and the ethical significance of good, true, and just measures. The Talmud is explicit: “an unjust measure is an abomination to the lord.” (Proverbs 11:1). The New Testament also contains important reflections on measures and justice, such as when Jesus knocks over the scales and measurement tools of the corrupt moneylenders who had set up shop in the temple. Further examples of ancient scared texts that address the connections between measurement and humanity’s sacred responsibilities could be explored, including examples from Eastern traditions such as the Hinduism and Confucianism (see: Kula, 1989; Busch, 2011). They all amount to the same message: the reign of justice and truth on Earth depend upon humanity’s establishing just and true measures.

This religious theme was often deepened through explorations of the esoteric connections between measurement, scared geometry, numerology, and archetypal imagery. It has long been believed that certain lengths, dimensions, and ratios are of sacred or divine origin. It was a common belief in the ancient world that God(s) bestowed to humans the tools of measurement and the exact lengths and weights that facilitated the emergence and growth of civilization. The Egyptians traced the birth of measurement to Thoth and the Greeks to Hermes, while monotheists traced their measures to God, typically through a specific prophet (Tavernor, 2007). In this framework, the just and true measure was thought to be the first, primordial, and divinely sanctioned measure. Isaac Newton himself expended great effort to determine the true length of the original “Solomonic cubit”—the basic unit of length used to build the temple of Jerusalem according to God’s blueprint, as provided to King Solomon. Knowing its true dimensions would allow for accurate reconstructions of the Temple and of Noah’s Ark, the measurements of which are both described in detail in the Talmud. It was thought that building these according to exact specifications would implicate humanity in the creation of divine structures of tremendous power, creating a mystical home for God on Earth, thus ushering in the reign of Heaven. The mysticism of measurement, and the religious aura and power surrounding measurement practices, is often overlooked in accounts of the history of civilization and human culture.[2]

Modernity and Metrology: From Sacred Measurement to Scientific Measurement

Modernity began with a series of revolutions: the American, French, Scientific and Industrial—all during roughly a half century (1760-1810). This revolutionary political and scientific climate also produced a profound revolution in measurement practices. The metric system, today known as the International System of Units, or the Système international d’unités (abbreviated SI), is an invention that embodies all the ideals of the Enlightenment, and in many ways represents the best of “the dignity or modernity” (Wilber, 1995). The motives for its creation were complex, including scientific, economic, and ethical concerns. The result was the first global measurement infrastructure, an overthrow of anthropocentric measures, and eventually the widespread disappearance of regional and cultural differences in measurement practices.

When the scientific revolution began, Europe was in a state of great confusion and conflict concerning measurement practices. The Middle Ages brought a decline in centralized political regimes with the power to set official measures, which led to a proliferation and fragmentation of local measures. This became a serious impediment to the expansion of trade, and also caused problems for the bourgeoning international collaborations taking place in certain rapidly advancing sciences. It was a social justice issue as well, as measures were often under the control of the local guilds and property owning lords, and thus subject to corruption, leaving peasants and commoners open to measurement-enabled exploitation.[3] In the decades leading up to the French Revolution, major efforts were being made to address these issue.

Measurement was one of the chief agenda items dealt with by the first scientific organization ever created (the Royal Society in England, and the Academy of Science in France). The need for greater regulations in measurement practices, universally standardized measures, and international coordination were clear, even if just to assure the progress of science. What was not clear was how to go about determining what the new measures should be, and how they could be broadly institutionalized. It was decided that in the wake of Newtonian science, which marked the emerging dominance of a science based on abstract universals and non-anthropocentric ideas, the basic units of measurement should not be based on the dimensions of the human body. Instead it was agreed that measurement should be based on something abstract and universal. In the end, a decision was made by the French Academy to have the length of the meter be a fraction of the length of the Earth’s circumference. There was to be a global basis for a global measure. This decision is a fascinating glimpse into some of the first manifestations of world-centric consciousness.

However, it turns out that precisely determining the true dimensions of the Earth is extremely difficult. At the time long standings debates about whether Earth is a perfect sphere were still being engaged. So the French Academy sponsored a huge scientific expedition to literally measure the meridian between Paris and Barcelona using highly advanced surveying technologies and techniques. The project took 7 years, but was eventually completed, hailed as one of the great scientific achievements of the era, and on August 1st 1793 the length of the meter was legally designated as the length equal to the ten-millionth par of the arc of the terrestrial meridian contained between the North Pole and the Equator. Years later after the metric system has been spread far and wide, it became clear that critical errors had been made, and that the meter was not in fact related to the dimensions of the Earth as it was claimed. The intricacies of crucial this moment in the history of science and measurement are beyond the scope of this paper. The point is that the meter is as arbitrary a length as any previously institutionalized foot, and perhaps even more so, given that it is not even tied to the dimensions of the human body (see: Adler, 2003; Tavernor, 2007).[4]

Beyond these scientific difficulties, it was the political and cultural challenges posed by traditional measures that proved the greatest challenge to the success of the metric system. As discussed in the next section, measurement infrastructures are uniquely difficult structures to change once they have been in place for a time.[5] In fact, it would require a wholesale revolution in social and political life (the French Revolution) to create an opening for the wholesale reform of measures. A revolutionary chant echoed through the streets of Paris: “one measure, for all people, for all time!!” The large-scale standardization and re-design of measurement was a part of the rallying call of the revolution. Old measures were associated with the Ancien Régime. Eventually supporting them would be cause for beheading during the Reign of Terror. The metric system was institutionalized by bayonet and guillotine.

The spread of the metric system coincided with unprecedented processes of standardization across whole swaths of social and institutional life, especially in industry (Porter; Busch; Scott). Fueled by global trade and shipping on a scale never before imagined: railroads, steam engines, ocean liners, skyscrapers, and eventually cars and highways. And they were all built according to levels of exactness in measurement never before achieved. This was the result of new standards-based regulatory regimes of global scale, the fist of which began in 1856, with the meeting of the International Association for Obtaining a Uniform Decimal System of Measures, Weights, and Coins. This organization’s first president, the international banker Baron Rothschild, saw the clear result of international standardization as an assurance of quality control, inter-operability, and efficiency in production on a global scale. A series of organizations lead eventually to the formation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, as well as the International Standards Organization, which I will discuss more below.

Following from these efforts of haute finance came the emergence of complex global industries, such as pharmaceuticals, weaponry, fuel and energy, and large-scale agriculture, which thrived on the new planetary infrastructures of measurement and standards-based practice. As a result of this seemingly miraculous mixture of industrialization, scientific progress, and cultural modernity, standardization and measurement became part of the moral worldview of an emerging global order. Part of what transpired during this cultural transformation was the disenchantment of measurement, its domestication; the scientization and bureaucratization of measurement functioned to remove its auratic connections with religion and ancient forms of un-scientific power.

However, the connections between measurement and power and mystery can never be broken; they are simply reproduced at a higher level. As numerous commentators have demonstrated (Mumford; Wilber; Thompson), tremendous power and mystery came to surround the cult of science:

The meter took on a new significance and it was accorded mythological, even sacred status. The installation of the definitive prototypes in the underground vault in the ground of the International Bureau [of Weights and Measures] at Sèvres on 28 September 1889 took the form of a ceremony of deposition. This was to be re-enacted every six years, a procedure more familiar to a religious sect or secret society that a rational scientific organization. It involved four keys of admission that were distributed among the foreign signatories of the International Committee. When they meet sexennially, the four delegates are required to bring the key, enter the underground vault, and inspect and confirm the safe condition of the prototype standards…. To insure its longevity—for all people, for all times—scientist-custodians [keep the “true” meter] out of reach of common humanity at large, controlling the metric system independently of nations…. On 14 October 1960 it was agreed to return to a truly “natural” and scientifically verifiable definition of the meter based on the orange-red light emitted by the radioactive kypton-86 atom, so that the meter would equal 1,650,762.72 wavelenghts in a vacuum…. Since 1983 it has been defined more simply (though no easier to comprehend) as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in the fraction of time of 1/299,792,458 of a second…. While a fundamental unit for all times had been settled on, it is one that can be comprehended only by scientists and verified only in a laboratory under their control…. It [the meter] has no relation to human form, the shape or extent of the earth, or to any form at all…. It is a measure of everything and nothing. It is culturally removed from the mainstream experience of society. It is a measure of total abstraction. (Tavernor, 2007 pp. 149-151)


[1] It should be noted that one of the functions of money is to reduce all other measures used in the marketplace to one universal measure of value. While it is easy to exchange like-for-like (2 bushels of my oats is equal in value to 2 bushels of your oats), it is hard to exchange dissimilar commodities, especially when they involve different basic units of measure (how many bushels of my oats is equal to 3 gallons of your wine?). Money serves as a kind of meta-metric that facilitates cross-metric value exchange (5 bushels of oats is equal to 20 dollars, which is equal to 3 gallons of wine). Suffice it to say that the power of money to reduce all measures to one is also the source of its greatest danger. Money homogenizes value, and renders many important differences between commodities invisible. Also, the quantitative structure of money encourages the quantification of value, which promotes the proliferation of measurement, even in areas where value is impossible to represent in simple quantitative terms (i.e., turning things into commodities that are not best understood as commodities, such as human lives and labor). Innovations in measurement that allow for non-monetary representations of value are discussed below. Money is also discussed further in later sections where econometric indices are considered as an aspect of the current global crises of measurement. However, a full discussion of the connections between measurement and money is beyond the scope of this paper, (for more on this important topic see: Eisenstein, 2011; Harvey, 2014; Marx, 1867).

[2] In the concluding section of this paper I argue that activism addressing the re-design of measurement infrastructures and standards-based regulatory practices should be understood as a kind of sacred activism. It is an endeavor to make measurement practices sacred again by reclaiming ancient ideas about role of measurement in the creation of basic structures that align with natural realities as well as human aspirations for justice, truth, and beauty.

[3] A classic example of measurement-enabled injustice from this time involves millers, who owned the local mill; the only place local farmers could take their grains to be processed. Millers would collect grains to be milled in bushels (of a size they specified) and return processed flour in sacks (also of a size they controlled). It was not uncommon at certain times of year for a miller to increase the size of the bushel while decreasing the size of the sack, thus leaving him with a larger surplus of flour, which he could then use or sell. There was no way to prosecute these kinds of metrological corruptions, because there was no centralized power regulating measurement practices. This was such a common problem that many medieval religious parables include stories of bizarre punishments in the afterlife for millers and merchants who engaged in underhanded measurement practices (see, Kula, 1989, for dozens of comparable examples, from bartenders with variably sized “pint” glasses, to pimps with watches that run fast). As I discuss, one of the great benefits of modern forms of standardized measurement is that they eliminate these kinds of simple measurement-enabled injustices. Of course, now we have measurement-enable injustices of a much more complex and subtle nature. But at least we can trust that a pint is a pint no matter what bar you go to, and that a gallon is a gallon, regardless of the gas station.

[4] I am focusing on length here as matter of convenience and clarity. The metric system also standardizes units for volume and mass, but these are based ultimately on the length of the meter (the details of the conversion of length into weight and volume are too long to go into here). Interestingly, during the height of the metric reformer’s ambitions, they proposed a metric standard of time, which would have decimalized time measurement, creating a 10-month year, a 10-day week, and a 10-hour day. This was part a broader revolutionary plan to de-Christianize the calendar and make it scientific. These efforts at reforming time and calendrical measurement failed, in part because of the power of the clock and watchmaking guilds, but mostly due to the profound disruptions it required of deeply set traditional rhythms of life, work, and holiday.

[5] This is a phenomenon known in sociological literature as path dependence (Busch; Luhman). Once a complex system is far enough along down a particular path, it becomes cheaper and easer just to stay on that path. Once a measurement infrastructure is in place it creates condition around itself (called layering or interoperability); as infrastructures become geared into one another they become very hard to change. This is one of the reasons that the United States does not use the metric system. The US had already gone too far down the road of standardizing its own measures and fostering industrialization to retrofit all railroads and factories in the country. I will return to a discussion of path dependence bellow.