Not to Scale

How the Small Becomes Large, the Large Becomes Unthinkable, and the Unthinkable Becomes Possible


By Jamer Hunt

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From small decisions that paralyze us to big data that knows everything about us, Not to Scale is a thought-provoking guide to navigating the surprising complexities of a networked age when the things that are now shaping experience have no weight or size.

The dictionary defines “scale” as a range of numbers, used as a system to measure or compare things. We use this concept in every aspect of our lives-it is essential to innovation, helps us weigh options, and shapes our understanding of the impact of our actions.

In Not to Scale, Jamer Hunt investigates the complications of scale in the digital age, highlighting an interesting paradox: We now have a world of information at our fingertips, yet ironically the more informed we have become, the more overwhelmed we feel. The global effects of our daily choices (Paper or plastic? Own or lease? Shop local or buy online?) remain difficult for us to comprehend, and solutions to large-scale national and international issues feel inconceivable.

Hunt explains how these challenges are intimately tied to a new logic of scale and provides readers with survival skills for the twenty-first century. By taking massive problems and shrinking them down to size, we can use scale to effect positive change and adapt to the modern era. Connecting our smallest decisions to the grand scheme of things, Not to Scale is a fascinating and empowering guide to comprehending and navigating the high stakes often obscured from our view.


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How Much Does a Gigabyte Weigh?

Bubble levels and outdoor thermometers. Compasses and alarm clocks. We used to make these in factories and keep them in our toolboxes and on our bedside tables. Today, they are “utilities,” bundled for free on our smartphones, just a thumb swipe and a finger tap away. As children, we cobbled together compasses from a piece of cork, a sewing needle, and a magnet; or built a sundial clock from sticks and stones. Comprised of microcircuits, electrons, lines of code, and glowing pixels, the compass and watch in our smartphones might as well have been made by tiny elves using pixie dust. The disappearance of these mechanical tools into the inner workings of the smartphone is a transformation barely short of magic. Few of us would know how, let alone dare, to tinker with the compass in our phone. Where would we even find it… whatever it is?

In some significant way each of these instruments—the level, the thermometer, the compass, and the clock—also helps us to navigate scale. Each organizes invisible forces—orientation, temperature, direction, and time—into perceptible ones. From sensation comes measurement; from chaos comes order. The bubble, or spirit, level plumbs surfaces, situating us in the universe. The physics of its operation is utterly self-evident: A bubble of air trapped in a glass tube filled with colored ethanol (the spirit) lists left or right, up or down, depending on the levelness of the surface. When the bubble comes to rest evenly between the machine-inscribed marks, or scale, things are level, or plumb. A thermometer is similarly straightforward: A small, sealed, glass tube is filled with a dab of mercury. Mercury, being sensitive to temperature, expands as it warms up and contracts as it cools. Once the tube is oriented vertically, the mercury rises as the temperature rises and falls as it falls. Graduated markings add relative degrees of quantitative precision, helping us to decide whether it’s a day for a light sweater or a heavier coat. In ways that were casually reassuring, the level, thermometer, compass, and alarm clock all evidenced their mechanics. We could relate to their operation. They each interacted with a seemingly ungovernable set of forces and made them knowable.

By turning these tools into functions, and by embedding them deep into the guts of a smartphone, engineers and designers transformed a relatively dumb object, the cellular phone, into a multifunction Swiss Army knife on steroids. As of 2019 Apple’s App Store was home to more than two million apps—that’s two million different configurations of functions that one’s smartphone could deliver. This dematerialization of knowable, physical things into infinitesimal, glowing pixels has transformed not only our economies and lives over the past half century but has also remade our perceptual universe. And where people such as travel agents, traffic reporters, and even friends used to provide services to us on the sidewalks and in the storefronts of our communities, they now more likely exist as complex algorithms somewhere within the apps on our smartphones. As we have drifted from a geographically bounded economy based on hard goods and real people to a networked, global one fueled by information, services, software, and artificial intelligence, we are losing touch, quite literally, with the scale of the known world.

Fig. 1. Traditional bubble level.

We spend exceedingly long parts of our days with our eyes and ears immersed in digitally mediated environments—working, watching, playing, relaxing—but the physical characteristics of those environments are effectively unrelatable to our human senses. If scale is a means by which we orient ourselves within our environmental surroundings, what happens to us when we cannot touch, smell, taste, hear, or even see their operation? Not to Scale is an X-ray of our present cultural moment. Rooted in the fields of design, technology, and culture, we will bound across science, politics, photography, anthropology, systems thinking, and business innovation in order to demonstrate the pervasive, distorting effects of subtle scalar shifts. Scale is not simply a way to measure the size of things around us. It is a formidable conceptual framework. We shape scale, but scale also shapes us… though we scarcely pay heed to it. Thinking and acting through scale, in all of its strange complexity, may be our best strategy for thriving in a dynamically changing world.

Few things should be more self-evident than scale, but it can be one of those concepts that gets more befuddling the longer one stares at it. We usually think of it, in its simplest sense, as a way to assess how big or small things are. The Cambridge Dictionary defines scale as “a range of numbers used as a system to measure or compare things.” For many, scale is nothing more than a tool for organizing information and collecting facts: Musicians understand scale as a particular scaffold of notes; urban planners use scale to distinguish geographical subunits; and businesses view scale as a means to measure productivity or sales. And the flexibility of the concept of scale allows it to work as effectively for physical properties (length, mass, temperature) as it does for less precisely measurable things (headaches and crushes).

Fig. 2. Digital level.

Through scale we can grasp the invisible: Calendars and clocks locate us across a continuum of astronomical or circadian cycles, marking months and hours and minutes and seconds. Maps and compasses locate us in space. This instrumentation of scale has become so hardwired into our perception that we now feel as though linear time, calendrical dates, and cardinal directions are a natural part of the physical world. In reality, scale is merely a human construct that we layer on top of the things we encounter so that our experiences make greater sense.

A recent scan of my laptop’s hard drive revealed that it holds more than 1,800,000 files. I have no idea what most of these are, or how I accumulated them. It was only a few years ago that I learned what a gigabyte was, and now my hard drive is hurtling toward one terabyte. My laptop holds tens of thousands of family photos, home movies, mortgage and passport applications, music, book manuscripts, passwords, marked-up e-books, health records, its own applications and operating systems, and who knows what else. The numbers just keep climbing.

One upside of this is that work from the last twenty years of my life no longer clogs up space and accumulates dust in our basement. Orderly rows of nested file icons have replaced moldering cardboard boxes as physical matter has dematerialized into ones and zeroes… ons and offs. All of that work is now always available and at my fingertips, built no longer upon diverse arrangements of atoms and molecules but upon a shared substrate of electrons and code. And it is all shoehorned into a machine so thin that it can slide effortlessly into a manila envelope. Miraculously—and paradoxically—at this very same moment that the digital footprint of my data-life is swelling uncontrollably, the size of my laptop is, improbably, shrinking. Each new iteration of my laptop both holds more and is smaller. More is begetting more and yet, somehow, more is also becoming less. Size and scale have become unmoored from how we experience things.

These transformations are more than just technological innovations. They raise unexpected, existential questions. For instance, the entirety of my work life and much of my personal history exists in a form that I can no longer see or hold in my hand. I’m haunted by the fact that I cannot touch it and I cannot see it. My digital life could evaporate in a flash, or a crash. What would the loss of all that mean to who I am? For almost all of human existence, until very recently, we could easily size up the things that made up our work and personal life—we could fathom the size of our file cabinets with our eyes, lift them to gauge their weight, smell the musty stacks of old papers for a clue to their age. Today, a significant part of my identity now floats about in a digital ether to which I have little perceptual access. In some strange way these circuits and electrons have shaped who I am and become part of my every experience. How much, I wonder, does a gigabyte even weigh?

A modern, digital process as seemingly straightforward as email—type out a message and hit Send and it rockets down a pipe to its destination inbox—actually obeys a logic that defies commonsense understanding. The protocol of packet switching by which an email arrives at its destination—the slicing of a sent email into tiny parts, scattered to the winds of multiple internet servers, ricocheting around the globe, and then reassembled at the other end—is just one instance of the numberless ways in which relatively easy-to-understand communication services have outstripped the operational imagination of most simple humans. This is a far cry from lashing a message to a pigeon’s leg.

And a recent Chronicle Review headline provocatively asked, “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”1 Three decades into the launch of commercial email services and we are struggling with the effects that this digital transformation has wrought. Just as storytelling and acting changed with the shift from the visual scale of movies to that of television, the way we communicate also changed in the evolution of stamped mail to electronic mail. It’s not uncommon today for a working professional to receive more than one hundred emails a day, something that never would have occurred with physical mail. The shift in medium has spawned new behaviors (overzealous cc’ing, never-ending conversation threads, spam) so that we are now so awash in it that we must ask if it’s actually making us dumber. A shift in scale—to weightless and seemingly cost free—has created a cascading shift in social behaviors and an increasing awareness that the medium is killing our capacity to focus and get work done.

If the oddities of scale lived only within the inner workings of laptops and computers, we could dismiss them as technological eccentricities. But the quandaries of my laptop are just one symptom of a tectonic shift in scale that many of us experience—but most of us do not see. More significant, we encounter these disruptions in matters of much vaster social import than our laptops’ storage and our email frustrations.

Not to Scale explores our place within unpredictable systems, the forces reshaping them, and our anxious uncertainty in interacting with them. We yearn to know how our puny, individual actions can lead to more positive impacts, but the problem is that simple cause-and-effect thinking is constantly upended by the aftershocks of scalar change. Through our human endeavors we push scales: We make things bigger, faster, stronger, tinier, heavier, or even more complex. But we must also realize that scale pushes back. Its behaviors are often unruly and its effects immeasurable. The phenomena these scales unleash can break instruments, unsettle our sense of self, and confound our ability to navigate complex issues.

“Paper or plastic?” Perhaps no question more quintessentially embodies our modern quandary. We usually encounter this simple question when we’re checking out at the supermarket, just aiming to get home to make a Tuesday night dinner. But it freezes us in our tracks: An insignificant choice telescopes out into a tangle of unexpected issues. Will our decision in that innocuous moment lead to more felled trees, the loss of carbon sequestering, the decline of natural cooling processes, and to increased transportation costs? Or will it perpetuate the production of a poisonous, nonrenewable, fossil fuel product that will live in landfills for more generations than we can count? Every question leads to yet another one, and the fate of our planet seems to hang in the balance. What might have been in simpler times a decision of convenience or preference has evolved instead into an intractable moral quandary at a global scale. I thought I had the dilemma figured out: I started to bring my own canvas bags. Hah… problem solved! That was until I discovered that many of the reusable grocery tote bags we buy are made in China using an energy-intensive process that includes hazardous, lead-based printing materials. Not only do these manufacturing practices contaminate groundwater at the site of production, but the lead printing can also leach into the food in the bags themselves.2 So much for my clever reframing.

Paper or plastic? Own or lease? Shop local or buy online? Fly or Skype? Public or private? Sustainable or convenient? Fast or slow? Recycle or reuse? Each of these daily dilemmas—small in the scope of our personal lives—expands enormously in import when weighed against their wider role in putting at risk our social, environmental, and technological futures. Unexpected changes in scale have disrupted cause and effect and our capacity to understand how things work. They have remapped the relationship between our conception of the world (the mind) and our perception of it (the body). Challenges that we used to be able to resolve using strategies, tools, knowledge, and help from the people around us no longer respond in quite the same way. More than that, it has become harder and harder to draw boundaries around the actual problems themselves.

For instance, if we want to help to improve our local public schools, do we look to the classroom (the books, the desks, the lighting, the schedule, the curriculum) or to the teachers? Given the massive underfunding of school districts in many urban centers, perhaps we should start at the scale of the school districts themselves, or the local, state, or national politicians who systematically underfund these districts? Or to the unions? Or the tax laws that provide the revenue? But maybe, as some experts have pointed out, we won’t see any improvement in the performance of children from underserved communities until the social and economic prospects of their neighborhoods improve? Or until we overcome deeply systemic racism? Or improve our public schools? Where do we even start… given that so many have tried and failed already? How can we better our schools when we can hardly design our way out of a paper bag? Simply determining at which scale to act is making “wicked problems” like these even more unsolvable. Should concerned parents, for instance, address the problem by starting at the scale of the students, or the classroom, or the school, or the school system, or the local, state, or national government? Factors and actors at each level seem to contribute to the mess. And should the starting point be different for a teacher? Or a politician?

A relatively narrow problem now instantly ricochets in all directions at once. What we might have once been able to address at the local level is now a massive entanglement in scope and scale. This condition is not entirely new: For decades experts have instructed us to think globally but act locally in order to manage this chaos. But this assumes that thinking “globally” is necessarily a straightforward endeavor. What happens when thinking globally itself becomes so complex and unwieldy that it makes every problem seem hopelessly snarled and out of scale?

It would be nice to believe that we can simply design, plan, and act ourselves out of the most vexing problems of our time, but the evidence for that is scant. Despite decades of damning discoveries, for instance, we have collectively managed only meager responses to what is a clear, imminent, and incontrovertible global climate catastrophe. Similarly, the public school system in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States (the wealthiest country in the world by GDP) is in such disarray that the influx of $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into the public school system in Newark, New Jersey, a city with a population of just 275,000 people, has had only negligible impact in improving the outcomes of that suffering school district.3 Our political system is awash in unregulated cash, and our politicians have lost the ability to compromise, let alone even agree what the problems are that they aren’t solving. Everywhere we look we see landscapes of real need littered with the wreckage of dysfunctional or broken systems: our public infrastructure, health care, food systems, extremist terrorism, criminal justice, waste disposal… the list goes on and on. “This century is broken,” New York Times columnist David Brooks audaciously declared in a 2017 headline to an opinion piece written less than twenty years into the new century.

An internet search for the phrase broken systems links to articles on global warming, economic inequality, health care, the legislative process, public education, criminal justice, and even college sports. It seems as though the more information we possess, the less effective we are. This queasy, overwhelmed feeling that keeps us up at night wondering what to do is a symptom of our maladaptation to a context where the rules are bending in unexpected ways and we are, like roller skaters on an ice rink, struggling to make any forward progress. In many ways it is a result of the wild interconnectedness of the wired world: When most everything is tangled with something else in some way or another, it is nearly impossible to stop untying knots, and even harder to know where to begin.

So, why is scale a component in all these diverse dilemmas? The short answer is that the world has become unruly… or has become unruly in new ways. This is, in part, the result of two important shifts, what I will call immateriality and entanglement. The first, immateriality, results from the digital processes by which we have turned atoms into bits—as Nicholas Negroponte phrased it—or compasses into apps. It has turned things that were hard, physical, and graspable into invisible, immaterial flows of ones and zeroes, ons and offs. Documents, files, and photos are now invisible pulses of electricity captured on magnetic media and visualized by infinitesimal pixels on a screen instead of yellowed, dog-eared artifacts that we shove in a desk drawer or shoebox.

And this dematerialization is not just affecting physical matter. Services, as well, are increasingly immaterial. Banks, for instance, are rethinking their entire service offerings in light of this shift. As recently as forty years ago banks were still erecting monumental, granite edifices to symbolize their solidity, their grandeur, and their permanence. Today, most of those buildings house restaurants. Meanwhile, the banks themselves (now multinational conglomerates) are struggling to figure out how to connect to Generation Z, the emerging demographic group that expects banking to be at their thumbtips, a mere matter of zapping electrons from one account to another. This is a paradigmatic shift in our sensory world, the impact and effects of which we are only starting to understand.

The second factor, entanglement, is the rise of interconnected and essential networks that have become the infrastructure of our everyday lives. Because our systems are so interlinked, the individual has become—paradoxically—both uniquely empowered and hopelessly overmatched. Consider a young couple looking to secure a mortgage in a midsized town in Massachusetts. Thirty years ago, that couple would have gone to a local bank, met with a loan officer whose family they might already know, and discussed the range of interest rates that the bank could offer for a property situated within a stable community. Most, if not all, of that transaction would have been determined by the dynamics of the local context, for better or worse (and certainly redlining and other forms of face-to-face, legalized discrimination made it worse for minority populations). Transpose this scene to 2008, though, and a vastly different picture emerges. First of all, the couple might simply have applied for the mortgage online and never actually met the broker (who might be situated in a call center continents away). Their mortgage offer would likely be bundled together with hundreds of other mortgages into a complex financial instrument called a mortgage-backed security. That mortgage-backed security would then be sold to a global market of investors who were looking to skim additional value off of it. The stability of the mortgage could end up being influenced by economic decisions in Greece, China, and almost everywhere else on the globe. Once that system melted down in 2008, and the value of people’s properties were worth less than their outstanding debt, it didn’t much matter if your daughter played on your banker’s daughter’s soccer team, because neither of you had much influence on the valuation or the situation. After 2008, many homeowners were underwater (as they say in the home loan business), drowning in the complexity of the networked world, inexplicably overwhelmed by the decisions of actors from countries thousands of miles away.

Or consider the computer hacker, able to cripple a major international bank by himself. The idea that one lone individual could intentionally hack into a corporate giant like a bank or financial services company was utterly unimaginable only a generation ago, or at least lived only in Hollywood fantasies. Now it has become commonplace. Individuals and small groups of cybercriminals are breaking into global, transnational corporations like Sony and “impenetrable” national organizations like the Pentagon with apparent ease, mucking about in their servers, destabilizing their information architecture, or pilfering their “secure” data and selling it on the dark web—the digital equivalent of the black market. The networked, digital communications infrastructure laid upon the creaky, physical infrastructure of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has produced a monstrous hybrid that has us entangled in its maw. We feel alternately all-powerful and overwhelmed in the face of this crossbred condition. At the precise moment when a vast and dazzling world is at our fingertips, our noses are pressed to the glass of our computer screens and our fingertips are able to know it only through keystrokes and made-up hand gestures (pinch and zoom, double tap, four-finger swipe).

If the first dizzying shift is the result of the digital dematerialization of our artifacts, processes, and services, then the second shift reflects the vast infrastructure of interconnectedness that we’ve built. We once built farms, highways, and pipelines. Today, we are building server farms, information superhighways, and data pipelines. It’s as if we’re seeding, cultivating, and harvesting information relays (and perhaps we are already) instead of living systems. We’re trapped in limbo, adrift in the layers between the physical and the digital. This condition of feeling caught between two worlds—each with its own rules and logics—is cleverly captured by the artist Aram Bartholl in his project Map.

Fig. 3. Aram Bartholl, Map, 2006–19, sculpture, steel, aluminum mesh, steel cables 900 × 520 × 20 cm, Taipei, 2010.

In this project, Bartholl reverses the direction of most changes that we encounter: He makes the digital physical. He installs twenty-foot-tall Google Maps pointers—the twenty-pixel, red, teardrop-shaped locator flags in digital map services—in actual locations in cities, towns, and public spaces. Bartholl’s installations remind us that we now move through space that is simultaneously physical and digital, and that we are having a harder time keeping the two straight. Virtual, augmented, and mixed realities will only intensify this interleaving. We seem to exist now at the diaphanous membrane between the physical and the digital—between the world and its digital double. By layering a real interpretation of the digital upon our real, so to speak, Bartholl inverts our expectations and throws our conceptual boundaries askew, revealing the very strangeness of this hybrid world we’re building.

Ironically, what makes our uneasy relationship to scale so unsettling and resonant is that we do think in scales all the time, whether we are aware of it or not: Measuring ingredients to mix a cocktail, deciding whether to lift up a small child, observing the speed limit while driving on the highway, and picking out a pair of shoes that fit properly are all exercises in scalar judgment. But scale can also be a means for thinking through the relationship of the small to the large, or the representation (or model) to the represented. In architecture, for instance, scale models are tools for architects to assemble, examine, analyze, and even experience space and materials. The cost of building at full scale is prohibitive, so an architect builds a smaller, proportionally accurate version of it as a proxy for the full experience. Business models, as well, are less data-rich schemas for what a business is or will be shaped like. Scale models, in this sense, are mimetic: They mirror the real thing, though they are reduced in sensory data.

To think in scales, then, is to adopt a process of reasoning that extrapolates from the small to the large, from the reduced to the full, and from the incomplete to the complete. We project into the model the attributes of the fully realized thing itself, and vice versa. When anthropologists and sociologists deduce culture-wide patterns of behavior and meaning from the actions of a few individuals, are they not also thinking in scales—deriving properties of the whole culture from an analysis of a part? Scale, in this sense, suffuses our thought processes, though we might not think of it that way.

To understand the puzzling forces that are deforming our everyday experiences, we will need to venture deep into the very idea of scale. To understand it better, and to learn how to navigate it more effectively, this book takes form in two parts. The first part is more anecdotal and analytical. The first four chapters will, themselves, shift across increasing scales so that we may better understand not only how scale works but also how it is changing. We start with measurement and the hazards of quantitative thinking. From there we consider the human figure and its modern struggle to thrive in the new environments that technology creates. We explore how we learn scale and what it feels like. From the figure we’ll move to the system. It’s impossible to understand our own quixotic relation to the scale of things today without thinking in systems, as the systems guru Donella Meadows would suggest, and recognizing the ways in which changes in scale can precipitate unexpected system behaviors. And finally, we discover how networks have created the conditions for upending our very understanding of cause and effect. Small actions and actors can seem to have monumental impact, and our collective will to improve the systems around us often gets us nowhere.


  • "This incredibly insightful book was a revelation that got my brain cells dancing. What a delight! Jamer Hunt's captivating stories of the power of scale provides exploding breakthrough clarity that we could all benefit from."—Bruce Nussbaum, Mentor-in-residence, NEW INC., former columnist, Businessweek and Fast Company
  • "Jamer Hunt suggests possible tactics for us all to embrace and master ambiguity and complexity. Rigged with dangerous revelations about the limits of human understanding but also rich with faith in human ingenuity and adaptability, Hunt's book is wise, entertaining, and hopeful, a gift for all of us engaged in constructing a better present and future."—Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture &Design and Director of Research & Development at the Museum of Modern Art

On Sale
Mar 3, 2020
Page Count
272 pages

Jamer Hunt

About the Author

Jamer Hunt is the Vice Provost for Transdisciplinary Initiatives at The New School, and was founding director of the graduate program of Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons School of Design. He co-founded DesignPhiledelphia, the country’s largest design week, and has published over two dozen articles for platforms such as Huffington Post. Named by Fast Company on their list of the “Most Creative People,” he uses his unique background to give life a new perspective.

Learn more about this author