Our Obsession with Measurement
Frequently my friends accuse me of thinking too much about strange things that should never really be connected. These accusations reflect a considerable portion of the truth, but I am going to tell you how the story unfolded anyway. So I am driving in my car, thinking about why electronics play the role they play in our society, and I wind up thinking about our social obsession with measurement where everything becomes quantitative data. (See, and there are people out there who think that we really need to be concerned about people who talk on cell phones while driving….) How did I make these connections? And what does it have to do with the challenges of electronic waste?
I have been thinking a lot about where we put electronic devices. When you start looking for them, they appear everywhere! My car is certainly no exception. Electronics are EVERYWHERE in cars from the obvious culprits of the LCD clock, battery charger, and remote access to the not-so-obvious indicator lights, cruise control, and ignition sequencing devices. But the not-so-obvious electronics all work to monitor our systems to make sure they function near the ideal.
Why? Because electronic devices are a) cheap, b) ubiquitous, c) capable of talking amongst themselves, and d) incredibly versatile at measurement. After all, monitoring complex systems best happens with tons of input being fed through an incredible array of computers at every instant within the realm of processing speed! Right? Right!?! Right??? Come’on, where’s the cheering?
I doubt the cheering happened because I used big words that obscure the central issue: that of measurement. See, if you have an electronic sensor in something, then you can feed that electrical sensor into a computer. That computer can then execute a control function (basically a mathematical equation) to keep the sensor in an appropriate range. And we like for critical systems to have as much feedback as possible, particularly as the appropriate range gets smaller and smaller. It’s interesting for me to realize that fuel economy in our vehicles depends in large part on constant adjustment of the fuel injection processes.
We like measurement, almost to the point where we will over-measure for the sake of measurement. Measurement leads to standardization; standardization leads to accountability. Electronic systems enable tracking and management of data. We run into problems when we assume everything can be monitored by a control algorithm, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that we do not try.