Not to Scale: Design and Innovation in Unruly Times

Jamer Hunt


Manuscript (forthcoming)


If complexity is our condition and uncertainty is our context, then scale is our mission to the moon. We are living through a time when the subtle and unexpected effects of changes in scale are reshaping our perceptions of our world and remaking our ability to effect change within it.


Through our human endeavors we push scale: we make things bigger, faster, stronger, tinier, heavier, and more complex. But scale also pushes back. Its behaviors are often unruly and its effects sometimes subtle. Recently, the only global standard for the kilogram lost weight. Wild pigs are multiplying out of control in the Southern woods. Lone individuals with tiny bits of code are able to hack massive military complexes. Big data is rewriting the rules of business. And, while facing an ugly Power Point slide with a hopelessly convoluted diagram of the NATO counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal famously quipped, “When we understand that slide we’ll have won the war.” Being comfortable and resilient in the face of surprising scale changes will be one of the key survival tools of the twenty-first century.


Digital revolutions have turned what was solid into quicksilver while sprawling networks have collapsed vast distances. Our new sensorium is immeasurable and ungraspable, and the phenomena that scalar changes unleash can confuse scientific instruments, unsettle one’s sense of self, and confound our ability to navigate complex issues.


Not to Scale puts together into the same frame—and sometimes into the same chapter—bubble levels and garden gnomes; quantum mechanics and typography; the Linux operating system and the color black; feral pigs and the Netherlands fallacy; nickel tailings and Nancy Pelosi; and big data and tiny ants. Not to Scale is an x-ray of our present cultural moment. It offers both a diagnosis of our current condition and a prescription for how to adapt. The book’s first half demonstrates how subtle shifts in scale are deforming both our perception and conception of how things work; the second half prescribes strategies for navigating the complexity that scale changes create. Readers will come away with a much deeper appreciation, and even affection, for the often-overlooked idea of scale.


While rooted in the fields of culture, technology, and design, Not to Scale bounds across science, politics, photography, anthropology, systems thinking and social innovation to draw lessons for becoming resilient within this unstable context. The examples venture deep into the very idea of scale, revealing surprising behaviors as systems shift in scale. Most current books on scale are either guidebooks to making business bigger or academic treatises on geography; instead, Not to Scale reveals a fundamental force that is reshaping both our everyday experiences and our ways of adapting.