Decimalization: New Ways Forward

I've talked about measurement systems on the blog before, notably in this post, where I criticized Americans for retaining their archaic measurements, and in this post, where I criticized the French for not entirely decimalizing how they say their numbers.

Now, basically anyone who has lived life in the United States knows that our measurements are ridiculous. No one honestly believes fitting 16 ounces into a pound or 5,280 feet into a mile is more simple or more rational than having 1,000 grams in a kilogram and 1,000 meters in a kilometer. There are only three countries in the world that do not use the International System of Units (SI) as their sole or primary measurement system - and the other two are Liberia and Burma. Making the change to SI in the United States is not impossible: In fact, it would actually be a job creator - and afterward life would be a whole lot easier.

If you think about it, though, there are already many things we have decimalized here in the U.S., including our money, the nutrition facts on every food product, and then of course the regular activities of many professionals in medicine and science. In fact, the U.S. dollar was the first decimal currency in the world! We used to be decimal innovators. Now the main lingering enemies to decimalization, standardization and rationality are units like the mile, the pound, the gallon, and the Fahrenheit degree, which are deeply entrenched in how all Americans (including me) thinking about essential daily aspects of their lives, ranging from transport to cooking, and from weather to how we think of ourselves.

Wiki map of countries not using SI
Our own longstanding comfort with these traditional units has been built in solely because of repetition and growing up with the system. I'd say that comfort has been the primary stumbling block of attempts at measurement reform and decimalization in the U.S., which occurred in both the 19th century and the 1970s. Ultimately, politicians and citizens failed to carry the attempts through because we were just too comfortable with the status quo. I think we'd be a lot less comfortable if we had a more global view: Who actually thinks that Liberia, Burma and the U.S. are super-countries with more intelligent citizens, able to do without that oh-so-easy metric system? The ease with which we ignore international consensus on a rational, incredibly simple system is mind-boggling. It reflects how closed our perspective on the world is.

I know I said a year ago that I won't vote for Barack Obama in the presidential election this November. If the President promised to mandate national changeover to SI, however, I might just change my mind (not that my vote matters). Measurement reform at the official, government level is something that might be achieved in a very easy manner. For one thing, I'm sure many individuals and organizations have already drawn up plans for how to implement the change in the easiest way possible. For another, there should be bipartisan political will behind such an action, and making a strong, robust law with clearly-defined deadlines and punishments for recalcitrance should be all it takes to finally get the ball rolling toward a metric nation. Like it or not, we will have to accept SI sooner or later, and we're holding back scientific progress and consistency around the world the longer we stay obstinant. Sure the changes will cost money, but they'll also create a ton of work and jobs. If we made it to the moon, isn't this the sort of mission Americans should find easy to achieve?

Lastly, I won't just limit my post here to discussing what should be an obvious goal for the United States of joining the rest of the world by using SI. I would also like to mention that new frontiers of decimalization lie ahead in the future - ones which no country has crossed in the 20th or 21st century. One of those frontiers, explored only briefly by Revolutionary France, is the decimalization of time. If you think about it, some of the ways we measure time are natural - the year as Earth's revolution around the Sun, and the day as Earth's revolution on its axis. Other units of time we all use, however, are unnatural: the hour, minute, second, and also the month. (I realize months originate in lunar phases, but they no longer reflect those cycles, and if they did our calendar would be very messed up.) Did you ever realize how completely arbitrary it is to have 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute? I know it all "makes sense" to us, since we're used to it, but it really doesn't make sense at all.

I look forward to the day when countries around the globe will band together and agree that time should be decimalized. I would like to see 10 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour, and 100 seconds in a minute. Yes, the new hour would become a lot longer (2.4 old hours, obviously), but the new minute and new second would be more similar to their predecessors (1.44 old minutes and .86 old seconds, respectively). This changes neither the amount of real time available to us, nor the ways in which we use our time. Rather, all it does is make calculations and records involving time much more easy to compute and chronicle, thereby making our daily lives more efficient and advanced, just as does the decimalization of other measures.

If you don't think the U.S. should pursue measurement reform, or if decimal time freaks you out, please leave a comment here. And if you agree with me, feel free to comment too!

Comments