2018

Scaling. What happens when we scale things up or down?

Long overlooked, scaling is nonetheless part and parcel of media studies. Marshall McLuhan first called attention to scale and scaling in the formulation of his maxim, The Medium is the Message. “In a culture like ours,” McLuhan writes, “it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium (…) result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs.” More recently, the effects of scale have been taken up as a leading question by Lev Manovich. Manovich’s study of “Scale Effects” in the reproduction of visual images – measured in pixels, image size, and speed of access – probes the very future of visual communication in a globalized society. Moreover, if we connect the question of scale to the notorious statement of Protagoras (that man is the measure of all things), the possibilities of scaling technologies question directly the anthropomorphic foundations of all kinds of cultural techniques, like dwelling, reading, writing, making music and so forth.

By now, scaling has become a topic both in media studies and beyond, perhaps because of its almost universal applicability. The physicist Geoffrey West raises scale to the level of a fundamental law of change, claiming that not only biological organisms, but even metropolises and major corporations can be determined by laws of scale. Is this claim of a general theory of scale itself out of scale? One can scale pretty much anything. The operation is not limited to specific realms of thought in either the humanities or the sciences. Scaling is a principle of architecture, as Rem Koolhaas has shown in his groundbreaking work, S, M, L, XL. At the same time, popular culture abounds in scaling fantasies, such as Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Supersize Me. But although one usually thinks of scaling in terms of size, scaling has equally fundamental importance in the domains of speed and frequency. High-frequency trading e.g. has shifted the market for certain financial products beyond the control of human beings. How does microtemporality relate to macrotemporality? Introducing recursivity into scaling size leads to zooming in and out, which again leads to the topic of resolution, and the question of whether a thing remains identical with itself if we scale up/down the wavelength or the ppi by which we observe that thing. Scientists, too, conduct “pilot” experiments that have to withstand being scaled up. Further, scaling seems always bound up in aesthetics. Questions of scaling figure decisively in literature, music, design and the arts. Is it true, for example, that the difference between a story and a novel is merely in length?

Is there a tipping point where numbers alter the identity of things? Where aesthetics tips over into ontology as in the case of the uncertainty principle? How do we make sense of changing size, speed, frequency? Is scaling a way to get at the blueprint of things? Finally, can scaling processes be controlled? At least here, scaling is relevant in politics as well.