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.
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 thelonger 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).
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.