Which man is bigger? (source)
Today I would like to build on the topic of last week’s email, and start linking this thinking to today’s design opportunities.
Rose writes that averagarianism, and the idea of applying average solutions to soft (non mathematical) problems dates back to the middle of the 18th century.
Born in 1796, Adolphe Quetelet was the first person to receive the prestigious doctorate in Mathematics from the University of Ghent (Belgium). Astronomy was the main scientific field of those days, and Quetelet managed to convince the Dutch government (who ruled Belgium) to build an observatory in Brussels. An immensely expensive task, and a threshold required for any nation seeking authority in the field.
Whilst traveling on research to other observatories a revolution broke and the Brussels’ observatory has been occupied by rebels. As he had no idea how long the revolution would last, and if he could resume his pursuits once it was done, Quetelet decided to pivot his interests.
Intrigued by forced needed to disrupt ordinary life into a revolution he wanted to apply mathematical rigor to societal shifts.
He was well versed in observing and calculating movements in complexed, multi–agent systems (stars), and ideated the possibility of apply that knowledge to the field of social physics.
[…] his decision to study social behavior came during a propitious moment in history. Europe was awash in the first tidal wave of “big data” in history, what one historian calls “an avalanche of printed numbers. As nations started developing large-scale bureaucracies and militaries in the early nineteenth century, they began tabulating and publishing huge amounts of data about their citizenry, such as the number of births and deaths each month, the number of criminals incarcerated each year, and the number of incidences of disease in each city.15 This was the very inception of modern data collection, but nobody knew how to usefully interpret this hodgepodge of data. Most scientists of the time believed that human data was far too messy to analyze—until Quetelet decided to apply the mathematics of astronomy.
Quetelet knew that one common task for any eighteenth-century astronomer was to measure the speed of celestial objects. This task was accomplished by recording the length of time it took an object such as a planet, comet, or star to pass between two parallel lines etched onto the telescope glass. For example, if an astronomer wanted to calculate the speed of Saturn and make predictions about where it would appear in the future, he would start his pocket watch when he observed Saturn touch the first line, then stop the watch when it touched the second line.
Astronomers quickly discovered this technique suffered from one major problem: if ten astronomers each attempted to measure the speed of the same object, they often obtained ten different measurements. If multiple observations resulted in multiple outcomes, how could scientists decide which one to use? Eventually, astronomers adopted an ingenious solution that was originally known as the “method of averages”17: all the individual measurements were combined together into a single “average measurement” which, according to the advocates of the method, more accurately estimated the true value of the measurement in question than any single observation.
When Quetelet ventured to establish a social science, his most pivotal decision was borrowing astronomy’s method of averages and applying it to people. His decision would lead to a revolution in the way society thought of the individual.
— Excerpt From: Todd Rose. “The End of Average”
Next big step in this thread of thinking is Taylorism.
The reason I am taking the time to explore this throughly is that through the serendipitous encounter with this book I have managed to find the antagonist and protagonist in my research. Average, and individual thinking respectively.
Have a great week.