28 Nov 2020
Adam Jesionowski
Beyond Quantity

This is an age of codes. Ultimately a code is a quantity: a particular code is one of a finite number of possible codes.

As the age of codes the dominant metaphor is of information-processing machines. We apply this framing device on every level of existence: our neurons are tiny computing machines that create a larger computing machine we call the brain. Organisms are input output machines that take in materials x, y, and z and make them a, b, c. We are consistently algorithmic about things: our economic system is a constant optimization problem maximizing profit.

Let’s take a step back from this frame. A machine is a construct. It is something we humans build and deploy to some end. There is no machine without a human.

Another step back, looking at us humans. We experience the quality of the world, the way in which red is red and pain is pain. We exist in some way that must necessarily defy quantification, defy mechanization.

Consider the task of assigning some number to pain or pleasure. Certainly there is some way in which the experience of pain is more or less than the experience of some other pain. Yet the actual texture and fact of that pain cannot be contained in calling some pain 7 out of 10. It is an absurdity to compress that experience down into that tiny number.

We can especially feel the smallness of a single number when we turn to prices. We can tell that one is organic as its pricier than the other option, but is it “just a bullshit label” organic or “actually somewhat trying”? W. Edward Deming said it best:

Price is meaningless without a measure of quality.

While Deming means something particular by quality here, the reduction of waste, I think we can generalize: “Quantification is meaningless without an experience of quality.” The word ‘red’ is a code, a quantity. It is a selection from a list of possible words, but there is able to be a code for ‘red’ as humans have an experience of red.

We cannot then regard price as being external and objective, without reference to an observer. It is the quality of experience of the humans involved in an exchange which offers grounding to the meaning of that price. There is always more to an economic exchange than what can be found in the cost itself.

I have to ask: how well we Americans are doing on the quality of experience front compared that to the economic front? It’s quite clear that the meaning of an economic exchange has been unmoored relative to the flourishing of quality. The prices are meaningless.

We live in an absolute abundance of quantity, of information. There’s never been as much information moving from one point to another than right now. Why, then, is there not an abundance of quality?

The problem may well be in that there is too much quantity! When a code interprets a code interprets a code interprets a code we move increasingly far away from the quality that gives a particular code meaning. This is a fact that is missed by over-use of the machine metaphor. In the world of information-processing machines, there is only codes and translation between codes. An algorithm cannot tell that it is having a negative impact on the quality of human existence as it can only operate on what is quantifiable. How the world feels is out of bounds for it.

A craftsman at a lathe feels the machine. He knows if it is running well, if it needs to be serviced. He knows the machines particularities, the particular jerk it makes when starting up. He uses the machine to create something with quality.

The craftsman relationship is the correct relationship for humans to have with machines. We are not ourselves machines, we have a particular experience of the quality of the world. We feel machines in a way that machines do not feel themselves.

Let us then dispose of using this machine metaphor for everything. What is quantifiable is real and important but it does not contain the whole of existence. Math cannot derive a map between the image of a flower and how one will seeing it. The emotional quality of the world is only available through experiencing it.

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