The Opacity of Scale: How Numbers Blind Us to Meaning

Thousands of demonstrators protesting against President Nicolas Maduro’s government march in Caracas on April 8, 2017. CARLOS BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Picture, in your mind, the volume of people who live on your block. Is it 20? Is it 100? Maybe it’s 1,000, if you are in a dense part of world. What do 1,000 people look like? What about the population of your city? For me, living in New York City, it’s 8,550,405 people.

What does 8,550,405 people look like to me?

Nothing. I imagine the dark space of endless galaxies.

8,550,405 is so enormous, it surpasses the limits of my imagination.

Scale is used in business as a defining characteristic of success. “How can we scale this?” “Is this idea scalable?” It is a word that brings with it more investment, more capital, a broader reach. More users, more engagement, more impact. But the reality of scale proves much more complex than its appearance of virtue. It also functions as a blinding device.

To “scale” is to produce a caricature: elevating similar characteristics found among many, while reducing the distinctions of personality that make us who we are. It removes the variation, pluralism, contradiction, inevitable nuance, the elements that create an individual identity.

Scale is opaque. It is impossible to see. It exceeds our cognitive limits.

The larger the number, the harder it is to fathom. The harder it is to fathom, the more difficult it is to empathize. The more difficult it is to empathize, the less real it is to us.

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. AFP/Mandal Ngan/Pool

The Scale of Tragedy

We can read that 4,800,000 people have fled Syria because of the current civil war. How accurate is 4,800,000? What if the true number is 4,800,008? Do those eight lives not count because we prefer a round number while telling this story?

Who could those eight lives be—perhaps they are an entire family? What if they were a family that you knew? What if one person within that family had the same dreams for their future as you have, but now has to abandon them all and start over? We can have empathy for that individual, but we cannot produce empathy for 4,800,000, or even the 4,800,008. Our minds collapse at making meaning.

What does the number tell us about how each person experiences their journey from Syria? Are they crossing mountains? Where do people get water? Where do they sleep? What if someone gets sick, who takes care of them? Does anyone know how long it takes? One week? Four months? What have they left behind?

Aylan Kurdi, 2015. Nilufer Demir/AFP/Getty Images

During one aspect of the journey, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, more than 3,800 people died in 2015. But a single image is what has the power to inhabit our minds—like an icon. The image of Aylan Kurdi, lying on a beach, face down with a red shirt and blue pants, sneakers. He is lifeless. After seeing that image, in late 2015, the world transformed from detached resignation to instant activation. Stories of his death, the war, and its inevitable victims increased in the news, propelling more conversations to occur, more donations given, more countries to rethink policies. Baby carriers, bottles, and formula were sent to Syria in an attempt to help parents and children in this impossible situation.

When the story became reduced to a single person, we could then relate to it. The image of the death of Aylan Kurdi was our entry to understanding this tragedy.

The distance between New York and Crimea: 4,775 miles. Author provided

The Scale of Distance

Our minds struggle equally with the scale of distance. The center of Ukraine is 4,775 miles away from New York, 6,263 miles from San Francisco. After Russia annexed the Ukraine area of Crimea, a study was conducted asking if Americans supported a military intervention. It also asked participants to locate Ukraine on a map. The results were as follows: People who supported military intervention also had the least success in locating Ukraine on a map. Those who were less supportive of military intervention were more successful in locating the country.

The physical distance from the participants of the survey to the country of Ukraine—and the resulting vacuum of understanding—creates an illusion of unreality. The country exists somewhere “over there,” far away from our daily lives of going to work, taking the trash out, planning what we’ll eat for dinner. Simply knowing where Ukraine was located changed the way people thought the U.S. should respond.

“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” the authors of the study, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, report.

“Build the Wall!” Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Build the Wall!” is chanted throughout the United States, referring to a desire to build a wall along the southern border of the U.S. and Mexico to ensure people don’t enter the country illegally. It is an easy phrase to say, a mere three syllables. The clarity of each word produces an easily accessible image in our minds. The word “build” (to make or create), “the” (reference to a singular object), and “wall” (something high and protective, producing a division of space).

But do the people chanting this phrase understand what “build the wall” means? The border is 1,989 miles long, covering mountains, deserts, rivers. Its physicality is shown through satellite images from the Pacific to the Caribbean in the six minute film Best of Luck with the Wall. The complexity of the images depicting where the wall would be built are in direct contrast to the simplicity of the phrase.

The Scale of Value

Estimates on the cost of a 1,989-mile-long wall float over $1 trillion. The amount of $1 trillion produces no effect or response in our minds, just as 4,800,000 people and 1,989 miles also fail to do. I read it only as “a lot” of money, more than I’ll ever know. There is no entry point for understanding — the figure itself is a barrier to comprehension.

But, if we put numbers in context, we can begin to see their meaning. The 2016 U.S. federal budget was $3.889 trillion, so we can conclude that if $1 trillion were allocated to building this wall in the year 2017, that would be equal to more than 25% of the entire budget.

Federal spending in 2016. Author provided

Part of the 2016 budget is $445 million for The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and $148 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The current administration wants to dramatically cut those programs, despite their almost inconsequential budgets. It sounds like a lot of money, but in context, it is not. All of these programs combined vs the entire Federal Budget equals the value of $10 for someone earning $50,000 a year.

Creating Meaning within Scale

Through writing this piece, I’ve struggled to look at the image of Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on the beach. I just quickly scroll past it. But reading that 4,800,000 people are refugees is something I can read and re-read without trouble. I suspect the response is the same for you.

For readers, is it our fault if we don’t understand how long the border is when we hear “Build the Wall!”? Who is responsible when we read about the millions of displaced people in Syria and don’t feel empathy for their lives? Are we to blame if we think $445 million is a lot of money in our Federal budget?

Knowing that the form of communication affects how well we understand it puts great responsibility on the shoulders of authors, journalists, designers, photographers, and everyone involved in sharing information.

If the way we communicated issues of scale created a greater emotional reaction, would we have a different response to genocide? To budget cuts? To the potential catastrophe of war?

We must ask ourselves these questions. It is essential. If we don’t, we face the consequences of misunderstanding, apathy, inertness.

We are naturally attracted to stories with the subject of one. There is a reason that biographies are a classic category in publishing and that a television station called The Biography Channel exists. The life of one person is something we can all relate to, as we experience the world through only our own single lives: a face, a body, a brain, perhaps even a soul. Just like you have. Just like I have. It’s a 1:1 ratio.

It is a mirror of ourselves.

Sue Walsh is a Creative Director at SYPartners and Faculty at School of Visual Arts, teaching the course The Feeling of Design, about how visual choices shape tone, atmosphere, meaning, and perception. Previously, she worked with the legendary designer Milton Glaser for nine years, ultimately as a Senior Art Director. She believes design has no perimeter, as a discipline or experience, as it shapes the world in both conscious and unconscious ways.

The Opacity of Scale: How Numbers Blind Us to Meaning