Arguments against the metric system

Yes, I think that everybody in the US should switch to using the metric system. The reason is simple: everybody else uses it. If you’re measuring something, you should report that measurement in the way that most people will understand; I think it’s a good thing for people around the world to be able to understand each other.

But I’m not actually a fan of the metric system, and I dislike many of the arguments people use to push for its broader adoption in the US.

Who are we measuring for?

I am a scientist and also have training as an engineer. I love measuring things! But in many cases, measurement doesn’t serve us — it serves the needs of the state and capital. It’s no coincidence that the push to adopt an international system of measures coincided with the ascension of capitalist hegemony. Being measured is the first step that a mere object takes toward becoming a commodity. Objects are useful for people, but commodities are only useful for capitalists (I just saved you the trouble of reading about three chapters of Marx).

Retooling production

There’s an assumption, often unstated, that the reason that the imperial system is still in widespread use in the US is stubborn American chauvinism. But this is America, it doesn’t matter what people want. If it was convenient for industrialists to switch to the metric system, we would have done so by now. But many of the production lines still in use are several decades old, and technology scaffolds so that new things need to work with old ones. Unlike most of the world, we were an industrial society before the widespread adoption of the metric system. And while it made sense for England’s industrialists to switch due to their proximity to the rest of Europe, it’s just cheaper for American industry to pay whatever “wrong system of units” tax they still incur than to retool all of their production lines.

I am not sympathetic to the profit motives of capitalists. However, I do believe that there should be less production than there currently is. It’s hard for me to justify retooling things that already exist and already work just to use a different system of measures (that’s more convenient to capitalists abroad).

Misguided rationality

The most common argument for switching to metric is that it’s a more “logical” or “rational” system of measures than the systems it replaced, and the imperial system in use in the US. This is a fair characterization of the metric system, but I disagree that that’s a good reason to adopt it.

The first feature of the metric system is that is composed of base and derived units. For instance, the metric system (supposedly) has a single unit of measure for length, the meter, compared to inches, yards, and miles in the imperial system. But remember that the human brain is not a rational device. Yes, inches, yards, and miles all do refer to the same physical quantity, but people think about them differently, and use them in wildly different contexts. Inches are for small things that are within my reach; yards are for big things that are nearby, unwieldy, but still manipulable by me; miles are for traveling.

Adoption of the metric system does not free its user from the limitations of the squishy organic matter that’s using those measurements. Why else would centimeters be such a commonly used measure, when the metric system supposedly prefers multiples of 1000 (and 0.001), if something on the scale of an inch isn’t inherently useful? Why do metric users refer to distances in terms of “thousands of kilometers” and not the more rational and metric-y “megameters”, if something on the scale of a mile isn’t inherently useful? Why settle for the meter in the first place, if something on the scale of a yard isn’t inherently useful?

And what’s so great about multiples of 10? Most people have ten fingers? It’s not surprising that the imperial system borrowed some of the relationships embedded in Babylonia’s sexagesimal number system; it’s really useful to be able to quickly divide quantities by 2, 3, and 4. I use a scale when I’m baking, and that scale is set to milligrams. Overall, it’s a more convenient way to cook. But when I’m halving a new bread recipe to make a single loaf, oh, how I wish that we just used ounces! Going from 250 to 125 is a more demanding cognitive operation than going from 8 to 4.

Top-down vs. bottom-up

There’s a pernicious belief that people of today (in industrial societies) are simply smarter than the backward and simple people of yesterday (in pre-industrial societies). While it’s true that people in the past lacked the benefit of widespread literacy and the exponential explosion in technological development that that’s enabled, their brains were just as capable as ours (if not more so). It’s important to understand that the “irrational” systems of measures that people in the past did use (when they bothered measuring things) were heavily influenced by bottom-up, evolutionary processes. People adopted measures that were useful (which is how we get inches/centimeter, yards/meters, miles/kilometers), and those that weren’t fell out of favor.

The metric system was invented by one of the first modern nation-states, then a brand new liberal democracy that didn’t let its new commitment to the notions of individual freedom from expanding upon the cruel colonial policies of its former monarchy. No matter how you measure it, there’s a straight line from the ideology that would violently impose its so-called “rationality” to fascism.