Beyond Measure by James Vincent review – worth its weight in gold

This enlightening book reveals the importance of scales and rulers to humanity’s survival and how measurement can be used for inhumane purposes

Once upon a time there was no time at all. And no weight, no mass, no height, no volume. None of the gauges and instruments we use to make sense of the world around us existed. They hadn’t been invented yet. And although the physical properties measurements refer to existed before the names humans coined to describe them, James Vincent notes in Beyond Measure, the point at which people developed systems to quantify the physical world around them was a moment of transformation for our species. Thirty-two thousand years later, that transformation is still unfolding, as measurement embeds itself ever further into our lives, from work to health, love to death: the world made data.

A Fitbit is some distance from a bone ruler, and the gap marks a huge expenditure of energy across a vast expanse of time during which generations laboured over finer and finer gradations of measurement. What motivation could there possibly be for this kind of devotion? In the first instance, Vincent says, the simplest imaginable: survival.

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