Counting and Measuring

The other day I spoke to a group of institutional research professionals. The topic was the College Transparency Act that has been introduced into both chambers of Congress. The Sway I used to frame my talk is here. In it, I reference the discussion that follows this tweet:

and then led to this:

Counting is definitional. Measurement is about dimension and experience.

In order to count, we must first define the distance (but really the difference) between zero and one. Counting to one is not merely the pointing to an object and saying, “One.” Instead it is, or should be, a conscious decision to decide what is being counted. Apples, dogs, Golden Delicious apples, Irish Setters,  ripe/unripe Golden Delicious Apples, male/female Irish Setters, etc. From the gross to the specific, we can decide what to count and how to count it. In doing this, we define the distance between zero and one, and that distance remains constant. It’s like a number line of objects.

This is because we can now communicate about the thing we can count, the thing we have defined. Sender, message, recipient, feedback; this loop is possible because the sender and recipient both have a shared understanding. Whether the definition is at the highest, most generic level, or the most specific, it allows two or more people to talk about it.  Once we can talk about something, we can express ownership of it, we can exchange it for another thing, we can monetize it. We can control it.

Is there really another reason to count something other than to exert control in some fashion? Sure, we can study for the sake of learning and knowledge, to satisfy curiosity, but I would argue that those are efforts at a different types of control.

Measurement allows for supplying additional information of a thing, such as dimensions along an axis, or color (“red” is just a generic term for a reflected light in certain range of frequencies), or cost, or potential acceleration and speed, fuel economy. The more we measure, the more we create definition and difference. Difference provides comparison. Difference allows us to determine or assign value.

Measurement also allows us to determine change. Change along an axis of direction (movement), time, and progress towards a specific change. Measurement is about the experience of a thing, from the perspective of those who measure, not necessarily the perspective of what is measured. When measuring people, measurement makes the personal into the deeply impersonal.

Knowing the difference between 0 and 1 is the foundation of effective communication and the ability to exert control and ownership. Measurement allows us to describe what we are counting, create differentiation in value and experience.

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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