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1/2 idea No. 11: Scale

By Jon Agar, on 28 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)


Thinking about scale offers a way of reinvigorating our subject.

(My colleagues and I, at STS, UCL, have been reflecting on the topic for a while, starting with a workshop back in 2015.)

Science and Technology Studies – our disciplinary junction where history and philosophy of science, studies of science policy and science communication all cross – has already paid a lot of attention to things that scale, but without ever placing scale at the centre of analysis. History of technology has gravitated to descriptions of scale – think for example of the Tensions of Europe project – without wondering why.

Think for example of:

– How laboratories act as levers between controlled microcosm and problematic macrocosm
– How microscopes and telescopes are used in the making of human-scale representations of the very small and very large
– How all instruments record, intervene and manipulate at different scales
– How units are made, and made to travel, in order to extend knowledge
– Of photographs, maps, and games, each containing the large in the small, or vice versa
– Of experiments and models
How big science differs from table-top experiment
– Of historiographical framing at levels of nation, globe, locality, city, region or person, and, increasingly, of trans-movements across them, such as transnational studies of science or scaling from region to globe
– Of microphysics and macromolecules
– And so on

Put together that’s much of the content of the journals of STS

But we don’t reflect on what they might have in common. We don’t, for instance, even have a term of art, an analytical label, for all these things that scale.

We also might note the extraordinary reach that modern science and technology has achieved.

A scientist at a desk in Pasadena can make a few changes to lines of code as represented on the screen before her – a human scale technology. Running the code makes electrons move through logic gates in the semiconductor substrate, activating signals to pass via wires and then, oscillating through the transmission aerial of Deep Space Network substation, producing electromagnetic waves that move outwards until, 18 hours later, way beyond the orbit of Neptune, electrons are nudged within the Voyager 1 spacecraft. A signal returning produces new data on another screen in Pasadena. This is the reach of modern science and the scales of intervention of modern technology. Intervening and representing at scales human but also at what the philosopher Alfred Nordmann calls the “uncanny” scales of the very very small and the very very large.

So, to summarise the argument so far: we already talk about scaling things without placing scale at the centre; we don’t have a term of art; and moving between scales of distance has been a distinctive achievement of modern science and technology. Two more quick observations before I move to the key proposition. First, scales are not givens, they are co-constructed with technologies. A nanometer doesn’t exist until a nanoscale means of measurement is articulated. Second, distance is not the only scale. Temperature is a scale, speed of rotation has a scale, credit scores have a scale, luminosity has a sale, force has a scale. Again each are co-constructed with means of measurement, intervention, standards and units (as our field knows).

This intervening power is the nature, the essence if you will, of technology. It’s present in the sublime of planetary science but also the mundane of changing gear while driving a car, or even brushing your teeth.

Let’s look at those two cases. Automobiles are means of going further then one can walk. But they operate by translating small interventions at human scales, such as turning a steering wheel or pushing a gear stick, and the automobile, as a nest set of technologies, translate these interventions, through mechanical and electrical scaling devices, into movement across road-scale spaces. Or think about what a toothbrush really is. The bits stuck in your teeth are too small, the gaps between teeth too narrow, for the human scale of fingernails, say, to dislodge them. A toothbrush translates human scale motion, via the levering scale effect, into microscale movements of brush bristles, which clean the teeth.

Technologies simultaneously imagine and substantiate scales. There is the opening here for a ‘new thinking about technology’ (a complement or challenge to interpretative sociology of technology, and a restart for philosophy of technology).

Technologies, under the instrumentalist definition (and I explain why I prefer the instrumentalist definition over the alternative cultural definitions, here in my review of Eric Schatzberg’s fine Technology: Critical History of Concept) can be said to be a designed, material, means to an end. But, and here is the proposition which I think is the crucial step, the means is always an intervention in a scale.

If you disagree, tell me a technology that doesn’t. I’ll extend the challenge: tell me a scale that doesn’t involve a technique or technology. Phrased in terms of logic, there is an ‘if and only if’ connection between the two. Usually when we have two ways of defining a subject that on the surface look different then it is a clue that there is something deeper, more interesting, to be found out.

There’s a programme of work here:

  1. Closely examine case studies of technologies, simple and complex, paying attention to all the scaling interventions at play. Simple cases (such as the toothbrush) help make the argument, but the distinctive achievements of modern science and technology lie in the massively multiple scaling by design we find in complex technologies. Think, for example, of the multiple ways an iPhone acts on scale, whether it is the microscale of an electronic logic circuit, the human scale of representation of data on screen, or the macroscale of calling a friend in another country.
  2. Seriously search for counterexamples. Any responses to the two challenges above would help.
  3. Figure out how important intention and knowledge are in technologies. Ancient metallurgy is an interesting case, since no-one would doubt it was technological, yet the interventions (effecting a change in scale of flexibility, hardness or brittleness, say in the making of a bronze artefact) do not involve knowledge – or do they? – at the level of the intervention. I’m thinking Ian Hacking – with his famous observation of the difference implied when we say we can ‘spray electrons’ – might help here.
  4. Figure out what is strange about the human scale. The idea that technologies are extensions of human organs is an old one. Jacques Ellul cited Henri Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion: humans have a “disproportionately magnified body, the soul remains as it was, ie too small to fill it and too feeble to direct it… this enlarged body awaits a supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical”. Marshall McLuhan likewise emphasised seeing technologies as extensions of human senses.
  5. Be frank about how this approach engages with our established, second generation sociology of technology (ie the social shaping of technology, which implies the co-shaping of society and technology). The new approach has an implied (perhaps embraced) essentialism which is jarringly at odds with constructivist, and other, sociologies of technology.



3 Responses to “1/2 idea No. 11: Scale”

  • 1
    Karin Tybjerg wrote on 31 March 2022:

    Think this is great way to approach technology.

    Relatedly I have tried to place scale centrally in history of medicine. Starting with a scale of the size of human material that was collected and attracted most attention (pathological specimens, tissue, cells, samples for investigating DNA or biomarkers). This historical shift – organ, tissue, cells, molecules – has been noted before. But placing scale at the center of the analysis reveals another set of scales: time of diagnosis, cohorts, number of disease categories and extension of technologies – a set of new connections in history of medicine.

    Its here:
    “Scale in the History of Medicine” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039368121001394
    And section 3 is where it gets properly going on the scales
    And there’s an old blog post:

    A supporting observation is from operationalism and also discussed in Hasok’s book on temperature. High and low temperatures are measured with different technologies. Short and long distances are measured by rulers, light etc etc. Technologies thus seem to be concerned with a band/level of scale – not with units.

  • 2
    Jon Agar wrote on 1 April 2022:

    Karin –

    Many thanks for these comments, and for the link to your scale in medicine piece. Looks like a must read for me.

    Also thanks for reminding me of Hasok’s thermometer study. Absolutely right that its a good case to think through, and I’ll have a chance to chat to him in a few weeks time when he’s giving a talk for us here at STS, UCL.



  • 3
    Matthias Heymann wrote on 20 April 2022:

    Hi Jon,
    great initiative, impressive! We aimed at investigating the role of scales in climate science, from local-scale traditional climatology to global scale climate science. Debbie Coen dedicated a whole book to the issue, as you will know, but there is more to say. Funding did only emerge for one of four planned subprojects. One article provides some ideas:
    Though its a great topic, I did not yet follow up.
    Best regards, Matthias