I want to write about scale, to write about the scale of things– or rather to write down my thoughts after reading Tom Robbins’ cautionary consideration when confronting the ideology of realism:
Most of the activity in the universe is occurring at speeds too fast or too slow for normal human senses to register it, and most of the matter in the universe exists in amounts too vast or too tiny to be accurately observed by us. With that in mind, isn’t it a bit unrealistic to talk about “realism”?
Robbins struck out for the far end of the spectrum by invoking the universe in his observation. But if you will pardon the pun, let us scale it back a bit to see where the sentiment no longer rings true. What if we substitute the word universe with the word world? Does that still seem a reasonable or insightful observation? How about nation or state? City? — What about neighborhood, office, church, temple, school or even home? I could go smaller: body, organs, blood, brain, cells, atoms, quarks. Just when do things happen on a human scale?
What is the human scale?
Maybe the easy answer is one: one person, me. Something five to six feet tall, one hundred to two hundred fifty pounds, moving somewhere between two and twelve miles per hour, existing for sixty to ninety years– that seems human, doesn’t it? That seems about right. Then I think again about that definition. I think again and I’m overcome with dread and isolation. How lonely that would be, how debilitating. Okay, then: two. Two people. Someone to talk to. Someone like me, but not identical. Someone with some similarities and some differences so we have something to talk about, and some tension to keep things interesting. Two seems pretty good. Potentially boring, but pretty good. Okay, maybe we need one more person. Three. Three people. The bulk of literature concerns itself with love stories involving three people. If we subscribe to the idea that there is truth in art, and art is a reflection of life, then three people has some appeal as a good definition of what it means to be on a human scale
But three people can turn into a two-against-one situation. Maybe that, too, is an accurate description of the human situation. Happiness is not the most defining characteristic of humanity. Unhappiness certainly has a seat at the table. And two-on-one is often unhappy. At least for a third of the people involved. So, maybe three. Three is a good candidate for the benchmark of human scale. One is lonely, so one finds another and we get two. A couple. We’ll call that love as a working title. Two start to think about their situation and realize that there may be something missing from the situation. A lack of change, dynamic, unhappiness. So two become three. A good selection of the various pairings of two people come ready-made for the generation of three. (Insightful design there! Good thinking!) Add a little sympathy for the plus-one newcomer to three and you can see it is not a particularly large leap to get to four, or even five or six. We’ll call that family. — Something in the range of two and, oh, I don’t know. More than two, but probably less than thirty. Humanity can be sloppy sometimes, so I’m not worried that my precision is not precise.
Okay, so we have a number. Or at least a range of numbers to describe the human scale of population. How can we use them? Or how can we test them to see if they stand up? Death is something that I see described in human and inhuman terms. For example, the near-simultaneous deaths of 2993 people strikes me as an event beyond the human scale. On the other end of the spectrum we might have a person who cannot die. Zero deaths. That’s not human either. — One person dying seems human in scale. And two, three or six at the same time, while tragic and distressing, do not invoke that sense of inhuman scale to me. Similar in size and scope to a family. I’m not sure if that’s coincidence. Maybe.
Let’s leave that for a minute and change directions. Let’s talk about size and speed. We started with our typical human being five or six feet tall. Roughly. Remember, I’m a sloppy person, so we’ll maybe expand the tolerable range out a little bit to account for the slop. What’s a human scale? Something within that rough range seems human. I worked with a guy that was seven feet tall, and while I did think of him as big — and more than a little intimidating because of it — I never thought of him as inhuman. Now fifty feet tall, and I’d lose my capacity to think of that as human. At least for another person. For a structure, or a distance, fifty feet is certainly reasonable. My loft is on the fifth floor roughly fifty feet from the street below. It’s a ways down to the ground when I look out the window, but not something unreasonable. If I had to jump down, I suspect I’d be pushing the extent of my capability to do so without being injured, but I’d still do it expecting a reasonable probability of survival. Five hundred feet would be a different story. And five thousand feet is right out. The Sears Tower, the tallest building in Chicago, is 1451 feet tall. It is built on anything but a human scale. — Even though it was built for humans. I think that is what Daniel Burnham was referring to when I cautioned against small plans.
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.
With speed, I can understand the speed at which I might walk or run. An automobile also travels at more or less comprehensible speeds for me — even though they are ten times faster than what I can do on foot. A jet airplane begins to seriously push my capacity to grasp as human: 400 miles and hour is nearing the outer extent of the human scale.
Particularly with speed, I wonder if that is a sliding scale based on the abundance of technology. Jet propulsion is common today. Automobiles are ubiquitous. — Do we adapt our definitions of the human scale based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves? Does this apply equally across the categories to which we might apply a human scale?
I think there is a case to be made for the first consideration. I think the idea of traveling through the air at 400 miles per hour would have been considered inhuman to an American from 1907 — even by those brothers from Dayton, Wilbur and Orville. And they were right in the thick of it at the time. When we get to the scale of structures, we have numerous examples of buildings that continue to amaze us at a distance of time. They do this in not because of, but rather in spite of the advancements of architectural technology. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Roman Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China — these architectural marvels from the ancient world and Middle Ages still stagger. Just as Daniel Burnham described. Yet the ubiquity of grand structures does not seem to make them more human. Chicago has nineteen buildings over 650 feet tall. New York has 47. Hong Kong has 43 — thirty of them completed construction in the last seven years. Each one of these buildings are inhuman marvels well beyond the human scale.
So I return to population. I cannot hold in my head the concept of thirty thousand people at a baseball game. I cannot grasp idea of hundreds of thousands of human beings all traveling to work in the morning. Frankly, it staggers me to consider what it must mean to speak or perform for a television audience of millions. Population is perhaps the trickiest of categories. I think that is why I am revisiting it in closing, and drawing the connection to technology’s frightening ability to summon collections of people on a staggering scale. It is one thing to talk about a total human population on Earth of more than six billion people; it is quite another to contemplate even a small fraction of that number all trying to communicate with one another in the same place — even if that place is not really a place at all: the Internet. The Internet’s deception against the concept of the human scale is two-fold. The Internet is capable of overwhelming me with its loneliness and the Internet is capable of overwhelming me with its profusion. I experience these events simultaneously. And in that moment, the Internet reveals itself to me as the most inhuman of scales. By all measures– speed, distance, size, scope, reach, population, adaptability — the Internet, more than any other invention, defines itself as the most inhuman.
Go back to the beginning where I quoted Tom Robbins. Substitute Internet for universe. When I do this, I find that I must agree with Federico Fellini: “The visionary is the only true realist.”