The Measurements of Life (Tools for Comprehensivity)

07 July 2022 in Resource Center.

This resource examines measurement as an important tool for our comprehensivity, our toolkit of ways to better understand the world and each other. It explores and contextualizes measurement inspired by the broad schema called the measurements of life discussed in Chapter 6 of “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Eric Stolterman.

To provide an exemplar of comprehensive exploration, this resource recapitulates and expands on the idea of comprehensive thinking beginning with experience. The importance of experience was introduced as a source for comprehensive inquiry and action in the resource on The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller. Several other resources on experience and our comprehensivity were summarized and expanded upon in the resource on The Ethics of Learning from Experience.

This is the second resource in a series on Tools for Comprehensivity. The first one explored Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox.

The Interpretation of Experience, Information, and Data

R. Buckminster Fuller’s approach to comprehensive thinking starts with Universe: “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience”. This all-encompassing inclusion of all the experience of all Humanity is the starting point for any comprehensive inquiry or action. In this way experience is fundamental in all our comprehensive thinking and learning.

Experience is also the basis of our cultural heritage which is regenerated as each generation learns the stories and practices from the traditions (ways of inquiry and action learned from others) curated by previous generations. Experience, cultural heritage (see the resource on The Value of The Ethnosphere), and traditions of inquiry and action (see the resource on Humanity’s Great Traditions of Inquiry and Action) are the three essentially synonymous sources we have identified as the sources for all our learning, the sources for our comprehensivity, our learning that aspires to integrate more and more of Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action to better comprehend the world and how it works.

But, what is experience? In Synergetics 302.00, Bucky Fuller elaborates, “Experiences are either involuntary (subjective) or voluntary (objective), and all experiences, both physical and metaphysical, are finite because each begins and ends.” By metaphysical he means the worlds of ideas and social relations which cannot be simply described as the product of electromagnetic, gravitational, and nuclear forces. This amounts to a two-dimensional characterization of experience with one axis for subjective and objective (the dichotomy of involuntary and voluntary) and the other axis for physical and metaphysical (the worlds of things versus the worlds of ideas).

Bucky recommends we start all inquiry with a Universe consisting of all Humanity’s communicated experiences. With this overarching context we can subdivide Universe to identify and consider relevant experiences for our inquiry, in our case, experiences about the art of measurement. What experiences about measurement are relevant? This is where the inventory of Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action comes in: if we can find even one tradition of measurement, we can take it as a guide for our learning. Since we started with Universe, we know that there are many other traditions of inquiry and action which we might also consider. If we do not find our first choice to be adequate for our inquiry, we can add more experiences from other traditions until we have an adequate set of experiences about measurement to explore. That will constitute a first attempt at guiding our comprehensive exploration of measurement. Later on, we can reconsider by adding an even broader array of experiences and traditions.

Let’s take Chapter 6 entitled “Interpretation and Measurement” of “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman as our guide:

The “real” nature of the world is revealed when it is explored as thoroughly as possible in breadth and depth, in order to understand its basic constitution.

— “The Design Way”, Chapter 6, “Interpretation and Measurement”

In two recent resources (Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox and The Comprehensive Design of Our Lives), I tentatively proposed a model for our comprehensivity, our inclination to understand it all and each other, as the intertwined breadth as diverging for context and depth as converging for clarity. “The Design Way” corroborates these basic tenets of comprehensive learning when it says thoroughness in breadth and depth reveals the nature of the world. Breadth and depth comprise our ontology, our sense of the nature of reality, from a comprehensive perspective.

“The Design Way” continues,

Information comes to us through direct sensory experiences that are filtered or focused by our perceptual lenses and ordered by our conceptual scaffolding. Or we collect information we have gathered from a variety of secondary sources looked at through a variety of cognitive frameworks. The challenge is to make sense out of all the diversity of data and information.

— “The Design Way”, Chapter 6, “Interpretation and Measurement”

“The Design Way” highlights “data and information”. I interpret this as another way to talk about experience. Remember that our Universe is about communicated experience. “Information” and “data” are two words to describe communicated experiences. This focus on data and information reminds us of the science of information theory which treats the bit as a “universal measure” of information as John R. Pierce puts it in his classic book “An Introduction to Information Theory” (see page 8 of the Dover edition). Pierce emphasizes that information theory is a mathematical abstraction of communication. It doesn’t include a theory of interpreting data, so it won’t help us much.

“The Design Way” reports that data and information are “filtered or focused by our perceptual lenses and ordered by our conceptual scaffolding”. That is, experience, information, and data must be interpreted along at least two dimensions. Our conceptual scaffolding is furnished by our background, our language, our memories, our chronofiles, our culture, in short, the conceptual framework we have built from our comprehensivity, our integrated learnings, some in breadth and others in depth (see the resource The Comprehensive Design of Our Lives). The other dimension of interpretation, the filtering or focusing of our perceptual lenses, is provided by our intentions forming our attitude, stance, or perspective (see the resources How to Create That-Which-Is-Not-Yet and Shifting Perspectives and Representing The Truth). The way we articulate our perceptual lenses is also furnished by our comprehensivity which provides each person a subset of Humanity’s inventory of traditions for perceiving and our inventory of traditions for filtering and focusing.

I tend to think of experience as the really real root of reality, but that is a distorted view. In fact, experience, information, and data are interpreted. Always. The physicist Leonard Mlodinow corroborates the point in “The Design Way” that perception involves interpretation, but Mlodinow uses the word “imagination”. I think we will find that imagination is part of interpretation. Mlodinow explains:

Human perception is not a direct consequence of reality but rather an act of imagination. Perception requires imagination because the data people encounter in their lives are never complete and always equivocal.

— Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk, 2008

The expressions “raw experience”, “raw data”, and “raw information” try to get at the idea of the actual experience itself. The word “raw” means undigested or not predigested and suggests uninterpreted. But that really real uninterpreted experience is already just an imperfect memory of what actually happened. What we call “raw data” or “raw experience” is just our imagined account of what happened. This imaginative story is “filtered or focused by our perceptual lenses and ordered by our conceptual scaffolding” as “The Design Way” puts it. So what we call raw experience or raw data or the really real reality that actually happened is, in fact, an imaginatively interpreted story about what happened which is quite distinct from what actually happened.

The communication of experience or information or data requires interpretation in the telling or presentation of a story and in the listening. Both sides of a communication necessarily engage the conceptual scaffolding and the perceptual lenses of our interpretive faculty to relate an imperfectly captured impression of what really happened. All we really have is imagination and interpretation. The actual experience of what happened is inaccessible except through our imaginatively interpreted and communicated stories (see the resource The Fundamental Role of Story in Our Lives). These stories, then, are our best attempt at capturing or packaging experience. They compose our inventory of experience, Bucky’s Universe, and they are the sources of our comprehensive learning.

Are experience, information, and data always and only about imaginative interpretation? Besides interpretive stories do we have any other means to assess the really real reality undergirding our lives?

“The Design Way” focuses on design interpretation since the book has the objective of fostering design culture. But I think most of its ideas about design interpretation apply to interpretation in general. Consider this quote:

[D]esign interpretation is an act of judgment. … a design interpretation is an appreciative judgment—a picking and choosing of what is to be considered and in what way. For example, appreciative judgment is the type of judgment that determines what will be considered as foreground and what as background, what is important and what is unimportant, what is valuable and what is of little value.

— “The Design Way”, Chapter 6, “Interpretation and Measurement”

I think this characterization of interpretation as “a picking and choosing of what is to be considered and in what way” identifies the essential core of all interpretation. All interpretation imagines and chooses the way in which we should consider a constellation of ideas about whatever it is that we are examining. It is not just the constellation of ideas, but the way we consider them that comprises an interpretation. In this way, I find “The Design Way” definition of interpretation, if you will, even better than the dictionary definitions which intimate the idea without scoping it quite so well.

Is interpretation an appreciative judgment? Sometimes? Always? Never?

Does all experience, information, data, our cultural heritage, and traditions of inquiry and action, however you choose to name the source of all our learning, require interpretation? Sometimes? Always? Never?

The Measurements of Life

In our exploration of measurement, we began with the starting point for comprehensive inquiry and action: the Universe, that is, all Humanity’s communicated experiences. We learned that our interpretive faculties are provided by our comprehensivity, the way we furnish our minds with perceptual lenses and conceptual frameworks from the full collection of all our past learnings, some in breadth for context and some in depth for clarity. We saw that experiences, information, and data are imaginatively interpreted stories. We learned how “The Design Way” defined interpretation as the appreciative judgment made for “what is to be considered and how it is to be considered”. Then, juxtaposed with this definition of interpretation, “The Design Way” connects assessment with judgment:

Whenever a part or aspect of reality is considered important enough to be assessed, a judgment has been made. In design, interpreting reality cannot be done without imposing judgment, which is guided by intention.

— “The Design Way”, Chapter 6, “Interpretation and Measurement”

What exactly is the relationship between interpretation and judgment, interpretation and assessment, and assessment and judgment. Does a judgment make an assessment or does an assessment make a judgment? Perhaps, these ideas are overlapping or amorphous? Where does measurement fit in?

Wiktionary defines a measure as “A standard against which something can be judged; a criterion.” So, measures are standards for our judgment. This suggests that interpretations are measures; and, indeed, they are. But how can we use measurement as a tool for comprehensive inquiry and action? “The Design Way” proposes a schema for measurement that provides a basis for design inquiry and action which we can also apply to comprehensive inquiry and action. Consider,

Design interpretation is a way to find out where we are and if we can move in the desired direction, in alignment with our intentions. To do this, we need a background or a foundation, against which our interpretations can be considered. This foundation is not common knowledge or truth—instead it is the measurements of life. The measurements of life involve the consideration of what makes up the worth of our lives, so that we are not simply measuring a set of variables.

— “The Design Way”, Chapter 6, “Interpretation and Measurement”

I read this as arguing that while interpretations are a form of assessment, to really evaluate a situation a more penetrating complex of judgments are required. The measurements of life are proposed to consider how the direction of our exploration (for “The Design Way” it is a design exploration, but for us it is any learning exploration) can be more effectively assessed. In particular, they argue that to organize measurement effectively it is necessary to assess “the worth of our lives”. Worth suggests a values-based wholistic assessment of the impact on our lives. “The Design Way” proposes a fourfold schema for this assessment or judgment which I summarize in this table:

Standards of LifeQualities of LifeWays of LifeSpirit of Life
Commensurable with a standardIncommensurablesNominal measuresIneffable measures
Quantitative measures using a scale such as ordinal, graded membership, interval, ratio, cyclical ratioQualitative measures such as interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, case studiesLists of defined terms, schemas, or taxonomiesJudgments of the je ne sais quoi for the joie de vivre
The Measurements of Life (adapted from “The Design Way” Chapter 6)

The standards of life are the ordinary kind of measurement we deploy widely with various quantitative scales many of which are well understood and valued. International standards bodies, the UN, governments, and organizations maintain many such standards which are sometimes enforced by administrative bureaucracies with the merit of keeping us safe from the indiscretions of common mistakes and shysters but with the risk of being pedantic, rigid, and sometimes stupid. An important, but often overlooked, aspect of quantitative measurement is emphatically given by physicist Walter Lewin, “Any measurement that you make without any knowledge of the uncertainty is meaningless.” Since all situations involve significant known unknowns and unknown unknowns, quantitative measurements always involve shortcomings. “The Design Way” warns us:

Life is too rich and complex to be reduced to the sum of rigorous computational scales.

— “The Design Way”, Chapter 6, “Interpretation and Measurement”

Perhaps, this penetrating William Cameron quote expresses the challenge of quantitative data even better:

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

— William Bruce Cameron, “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking” (1963)

So we need more than the standards of life to effectively measure the worth of our lives. Qualitative research attempts to reveal aspects of the meaning and experience of life through observation and exploratory probing. Qualitative techniques include interviews, ethnography, ethology, field observation, literature reviews, focus groups, case studies, user testing, and historiography. The results are qualitative measures incommensurable with established standards though the results can become standards of their own; these are the qualities of life in the table. Often qualitative measures can be developed into effective quantitative measures. Indeed, it may be that all quantitative standards developed from qualitative measurements.

Nominal measures name aspects of life that may be relevant for our assessment. These are the ways of life in the table. Lists of key named aspects of a situation or initiative are often easier to conceptualize and manage than a profusion of quantitative measures whose relative weights are often difficult to assess. In many situations, the simplest taxonomy, the list, can be surprisingly effective. Qualitative analysis typically includes a survey of the taxonomy relevant to a situation. In this sense nominal measures may be both the most accessible and the most basic kind of measurement.

The spirit of life gets at those aspects of life that are intangible. Ostensibly these “spiritual” aspects seem to contradict the dictionary definition of a measure since they involve no nameable, definable, describable, nor commensurable standard with which to compare. Nevertheless, measuring the spirit of life is both possible and important. The standard to use, which incidentally appears to be essential for all measuring even for quantitative measures, is our judgment. Even secular or “nonspiritual” people have a sense of what might affect the spirit of life, the je ne sais quoi for the joie de vivre (an indefinable quality that makes something distinctive or attractive in the zest of life). Moreover, this ethereal category may be an effective way to capture some of the significance of the known unknowns and unknown unknowns that affect every assessment but may not be well represented in the other three more conventional measures. Unless we check, we can never know if our measure of the spirit of life might reveal a significant issue overlooked by the other measures. So no thorough assessment can afford to omit the spirit of life.

Although in a sense interpretation, measurement, assessment, and judgment are synonymous, there are nuanced layers of meaning for each word. The measurements of life organizes an intermediate role for measurement situated between interpretation and experience on the one hand and a judgment of the status of our intentions on the other.

Interpretation is the necessary art of packaging experiences, information, and data for consideration. The measurements of life look at how our interpretations connect to our situation, initiatives, and intentions. We then integrate an adequate collection of such measures into a judgment to assess the impact on our lives. This background is necessary for the effective assessment or judgment of the direction we are headed in our initiative-taking. Judgment is the most complex and multidimensional word-tool to describe our assessment-making. “The Design Way” develops a thorough taxonomy of judgment in Chapter 8. In conclusion, this broad set of four measurements of life offers a comprehensive schema of measurement for our lives, our explorations, and our initiatives.

What benefits and challenges do you see in applying the measurements of life to guide your efforts to assess your situation, initiatives, and intentions?

The Measurements of Life for Our Comprehensivity

In our lives, each of us is learning comprehensively all the time. Sometimes we take in information in depth to clarify things; sometimes we take in information in breadth to contextualize what is happening. This comprehensivity, our learning in breadth for context and in depth for clarity, furnishes our minds with the perceptual lenses and conceptual frameworks that help us interpret the world.

A useful perceptual lens can be provided by the conceptual framework of the measurements of life. The standards of life, the qualities of life, the ways of life, and the spirit of life provide a scaffolding for taking stock of or measuring the effect on our lives of our interpretations in the context of our intentions. These four measurements of life help us clarify and check the quality of our interpretations. They help us assess the situations of our lives, the effects of various scenarios on our futures, and the direction of our initiatives. The measurements of life is a useful outline for assessing the world and evaluating possible futures or design outcomes.

“The Design Way” treatment of the measurements of life provides a penetrating survey of metrology, the science of measurement, broadly conceived. Not only do we now have a tool to deepen our understanding of measurement, but we also have a guide we can use to assess other ideas about measurement that we might encounter. Finally, this approach to measurement can help us assess our situation, initiatives, and intentions.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 13 July 2022 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 29m video from the 13 July 2022 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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