Stuff Global, Stuff Local

You can't open a business or IT journal without seeing the word scalability. An inelegant word meaning the ability to readily expand something you're already doing to many more locations and people. To increase its scale, in other words. I guess it can also mean to readily decrease the scale of something as well, but generally business and IT people get paid to make things bigger, not smaller.

It does seem that as a notion scalability is onto something accurate about little things and big things. When you look at how systems are made scalable, practically, it's all about adding little bits, a piece at a time, to existing local networks. There's no sudden elephant in the room. The skill of scalability is making sure that the architecture or nuts and bolts of what it is you're building plug into what's already there, and extend it just a piece at a time.

At the same time certain things need to be able to then move from one location to the next in this ever-growing chain or network, through a process of standardisation. For example you can go to McDonalds anywhere in the world and recognise large portions of the menu (and small portions of the food).

The point of all of this isn't all boring businessey and technical. The point is we're really bad at understanding size. We understand size as a cause rather than as an effect. We think big things are actually big things, and little things are qualitatively different things to big things. Something is said to be either big or small, or maybe medium (or if you live in the US then everything big is small, if it's clothes, and if it's food everything small is called 'large', with really big things then jumbo or super-sized). So scale is apparently an absolute property of things.

But it isn't. There is no such thing as size, or no absolute thing anyway. Big things are just networks of little things, daisy-chained together. Everywhere along that daisy chain is 'local'. And this isn't to say either that the little is then the baseline or foundation, so that there are only little things. You don't get rid of large and get to keep small. Take the avergae human being living their life, and contrast them with a large corporation. The corporation seems to be big and global, and the person small and local. But those are entirely relative terms - to the ants the person steps on, the person is enormous. To inter-galactic distances, the corporation is the size of an atom. Size means nothing - absolutely nothing - unless you specify the metrics, the measuring apparatus.

So it may be fair to call the individual human level of things 'local', if that's a word you want to use. But people do more than that, they load the idea with a privilege it doesn't have. The local is painted as some sort of existential and fundamental baseline, as if by considering things at the scale of the human body (measured relative to other human bodies, rather than ants or galaxies) you're getting to what's 'real'. But any human is speaking a language which stretches over thousands of kilometres, has biological traits developed over the same distance by different species and races throughout history, and opeates at a self-similar or fractal level of systems within systems right down to the sub-molecular level within their own body. Size is almost meaningless as an idea, it means nothing unless you specify the network and measuring standard you're using.

[Incidentally these ideas are what made Einstein famous. Basically he said "what's time without a clock, and space without a ruler?" He didn't call it Relativity for nothing.]

The first person to go out and find "IBM", the whole company, and take a picture of it and send it to me wins a prize. Something big*.

*I reserve the right to decide relative to what.


  1. Thanks Nick

    IBM in their efforts at scalability did create a bit of an elephant though with their "DOS-box".

    Mac Rules!

    I was thinking for the prize would you accept either a photo of the Earth or (relatively speaking) a pic of a microchip? Without that IBM (and computers as we know them) would not exist!

    I am going to be teaching microbiology next session and your comments reminded me of this inspiring animation:

    If you click on an object it tells you something about it.

    Also it reminded me of the final scene from one of my favourite SciFi movies "The Incredible Shrinking Man"

    The Singing Scientist


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