The Invisible Infrastructures That Shape Our Lives and Why Social Justice Demands They Be Made Visible: ITC 2015 paper update

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.]

I have only a couple weeks to finish it, but I’m excited about how it is shaping up. Note that first drafts are always a bit heavy handed.


Introduction: The Invisible Infrastructures That Shape Our Lives and Why Social Justice Demands They Be Made Visible

No matter where you live on the planet, measurement infrastructures and related standards impact your daily life in countless ways (Busch, 2011; Stein, 2014). For example, the average American begins their day waking up to an alarm clock. They flip on the light, put on some clothes, walk into their kitchen, open the fridge, and prepare breakfast.[1] They are not usually aware of the complex history of measurement practices and technologies that facilitate their simple morning routine. Nor do they suspect the massive global reach and ethical implications of the measures and standards that they take for granted every day.

The alarm clock involves the standardization of time measurement, which is a relatively recent occurrence, especially the mass-production of cheap accurate clocks. Theorists such as Lewis Mumford (1934) have argued that the standardized measurement of time should be understood as the most important invention leading to the industrial revolution and the rapid advancement of capitalistic modes of production. Electricity that flows at the flip of a switch is the result of recent advances in the ability to measure and regulate electrical currents, as well as international standards for voltage, wiring, and safety. Take a look at your electric meter and you can see just how precisely and constantly your electricity use is measured. Measuring something is usually a necessary condition of your being charged money for it. Monetization an essential motive for measurement, a point to which I will return. Every light bulb, fixture, and appliance is standardized to assure interchangeability and functionality. Clothes are all explicitly measured and standardized according to a variety of more or less reliable indices of size. This is a relatively recent way of standardizing mass-produced clothing, which has had a profound impact on the self-understanding and body image of millions (Lampland & Star, 2008). The size of the doorways of your bedroom and kitchen are likely to be standardized, as are the lengths of hallways, walls, and the dimensions of windows (all stemming from the coordination of massive international construction interests). Every item in the refrigerator is marked according to volume or weight. Certain nutritional qualities of the food have been measured and the results are displayed on the container. One might see various other standards of quality on food packaging (usually a standard box or carton), such as USDA Grade A, Organic, Free-Range, or Non-GMO, all involving the development measurement and standardization procedures.

So measures and standards impact nearly every aspect of our given lifeworld—the daily feeling of taken-for-grantedness that underpins our psyche and relationships. This implicates us in quite a lot, just by getting up and getting ready for the day. Consider just the alarm clock. Put aside the history of time measurement (e.g., it was the Mesopotamians that gave us the 24 hour day and 7 day week, etc.), and focus only on the alarm clock’s size, shape, and construction. The plastics that the clock is made from are the end result of global supply chains mediated by measures and standards at every step, from qualities and quantitates of materials, to labor regulation, international trading standards, and complex accounting practices. Here is where it gets important to pay attention. Because of standards enforced by labor contracts in factories in China, as well as inaccuracies in measures of raw material’s toxicity levels, whole populations are being poisoned and exploited, and its all being done by the book. That is, industry standards and scientific measurements are being used, often very carefully, yet their very use sanctions and legitimizes injustices—this is a very civilized form of barbarism (Harvey, 2005).

Probe deeper into who designs, implements, and enforces these standards and measures and you find scientists, businessmen, and politicians who will likely never set foot in the factories most impacted by their decisions. Yet they will be able to monitor and surveil those factories from a distance through the abstract optics of their measures, which is one reason for their creation. It becomes clear just how many people are alienated from a sense of having some form of control over many essential aspects of their lives, such as safety and livelihood. The workers being poisoned and exploited are radically disempowered relative to the measurement regimes that subjugate them. Especially the scientifically complex measure of toxicity, where the average workers are literally unable to understand the instrumentation and chemistry involved. The claim of scientific expertise (and the display of accompanying technologies) which back large-scale measurement practices often contributes the anti-democratic ethos that surrounds the world of international standards and measurement (Busch, 2011). This is another theme I will explore further below.

All this follows from a simple look at the measures and standards involved in producing the plastics in an alarm clock. I wont even get into the rest of the average American’s daily morning routine. However, the point to remember is that when you touch your alarm clock in the morning to shut it off it appears to you as simply ready-at-hand, a taken-for-granted part of the lifeworld; it is not seen as an outcome of a complex system involving injustices facilitated by official and scientific standards and measures. As long as everything works, fits, or otherwise adds up, we do not notice the multitude of measures that structure our lives. Their very taken-for-grantedness—their seeming invisibility—is at the core of their power and importance, as well as their danger and susceptibility for use as instruments of injustice.

Measures and standards are implicated in social justice because they quite literally structure our lives in profound ways, impacting the ways that we understand ourselves and the social world, and the nature of reality itself. They quite literally give shape to the physical environments we inhabit and the temporal durations that constitute the rhythms of our lives. They make some things possible and others impossible; they reveal certain aspects of reality, while concealing others. Measures and standards facilitate cooperation and trust at a distance and across cultures, while they also enable complex institutional processes that are often exclusionary, exploitative, and oppressive. They constitute what the great moral theorist John Rawls would call, basic structures (Rawls, 1971; Stein, 2014). Basic structures are social structures we enter into by virtue of entering into society at all. We are born into institutions and other social inventions and infrastructures that are not of our choosing and they shape our life prospects from day one. Because measurement infrastructures are basic structures they are intrinsically implicated in issues of social justice.

As I will explain, the history of measurement has been a history in which the privileged and empowered have been the creators and institutionalizers, while the oppressed and powerless have had no choice but to use their master’s tools and definitions of reality (Kula, 1986; Scott, 1998). This is a pattern that continues to this day, perhaps best exemplified by current trends in educational “reform,” where in the United States, billionaires who never set foot in a public school growing up, and who send their own children to private schools, swayed federal legislation toward the creation of a vast technologically intensive testing infrastructures that now dominates the entire public school system (Ravitch, 2014). New tests and measures are being forced upon teachers; if they do not use them they can be fired. Educators are being disempowered, deskilled, and rendered without voice when it comes to some of the most essential aspect of their professional practice, i.e., assessment drives curriculum and pedagogy. Meanwhile for-profit industries are poised to make billions off the privatization of one of the oldest and most inspiring public institutions in American history. There are important pockets of resistance to these hegemonic practices (Hogopian, 2014), but the trend is global, as Asian economies increasingly copy and exceed our test-obsessed approach to schooling, while efficiency-oriented, testing-intensive, and market driven educational projects head the list of World Bank and Gates Foundation funded “reforms” throughout the developing world (Sahlberg, 2012).

But education is only one example. This is a ubiquitous pattern in the evolution of civilizations: the creation and institutionalization of measures and standards is a lopsided affair, where power is wielded by a few over the practices and definitions of reality that shape the lives of many. In recognizing this reality about the profound impact of measurement infrastructures and standards-based regimes, new possibility for resistance and re-visioning social realities emerge. Brining invisible infrastructures to light, allows us to see if we are structuring our lifeworld so that social justice, human dignity, and flourishing reign.

In particular, and in keeping with the theme of this conference, when thinking about how to orchestrate global impact for activism inspired by Integral Meta-theories, one focus should be on the re-design of standards and measurement infrastructures of global reach. At the very least this would involve the democratization of global standards-based regimes, as well as absolute transparency and credibility in measurement science and practice. There is a future in which planetary justice exists, but to get there we must use the master tools to dismantle the master’s house—and measures and standards are some of the most powerful tools around.

So this paper is essentially a call for education and activism around the pivotal role of our increasingly diverse and rapidly expanding measurement infrastructures and standards-based regulatory practices. Focusing on these as basic structures and institutions is a unifying political strategy for those interested in progressive global action toward a more just world order (this would not be the anti-globalization movement, but the movement for global justice). A narrative around the reform of measurement and standardization could serve to orchestrate a decentered unity of diverse political actors and organizations.

What do agricultural innovators, education reformers, climate-change activist, anti-capitalist organizers, free-the-web techies, and holistic medical and psychology advocates all have in common? They all want to see a radical change in the basic measures, definitions of reality, and standards of practice in large-scale social projects. They are looking for a change in the structural DNA of society. To re-design the measures would be to rearrange the basic structures by which live and work. It would not be the first time in history that a wholesale revolution in measurement fueled the fire of wholesale political revolution (Tavernor, 2007; Kula, 1986).[2]

Below I begin with a broad historical survey of how measures and standards have played a role in the evolution of civilizations. I deal with the philosophy of measurement in particular, and build a minimalist integral meta-theory of measurement. I explain both how measurement infrastructures shape our perceptions of reality, our sense of what is true and false, real or illusion. They impact how we view what is right and wrong, and are implicated in our group practices and cooperative endeavors as basic structures and tools across the the planes of social being and each of all of the four quadrants (i.e., every measurement instance is a bio-psycho-socio-cultural affair). Then I bring the story up to date and look at our current global crises of measurement, providing a few examples from domains as diverse as education, climatology, economics, and medicine. All domains where measures and standards are beginning to become politicized and subject to corruption, ideally, and often just bad science. I close with some speculations about preferable futures for global measurement infrastructures and standards based regimes, seeking to inform the creation of new approaches to the representation of complex global realities, especially transactions involving non-monetary value, measurements of psychological interiority, and the probabilistic modeling of non-linear dynamical systems.

[1] There are of course, many other morning routines that could be discussed, which might represent a more diverse slice of human life on the planet. For example, waking up in a slum in Calcutta to the sun, climbing out of a self-made structure of shipping packages and sheet metal, etc. I choose the average American, in part because it is so familiar, but also because the post-modern west is by far the most measured and standardized social-cultural epoch in history, so it serves as a very good example.

[2] I am speaking here about the relation between the metric system and the French revolution. Part of overthrowing the crown and landed aristocrats was overthrowing their measures, which had long been used as instruments of injustice. I discus this further in the next section.