Isaac Asimov — Technophobe

By The Metric Maven

I’ve read a lot of comments below articles on US metric conversion. Persons from outside the US often post a variant of this question: “Why on earth won’t Americans switch to the metric system?—it’s so much easier—why do you resist—what’s wrong with you?” It is an exasperated plea of confusion, which sometimes morphs into a visceral anger almost equal to that displayed by Americans confronted with the possibility of an actual metric conversion. I’ve been on the receiving end of this primal anger at the suggestion we change to metric. It is not pretty.

Isaac Asimov

It appears that Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) has described the roots of this reaction in a cogent manner in his essay “Technophobia.” The Good Doctor had used a typewriter for almost 40 years. His fellow writers had purchased and begun using word processors (i.e. computers) for their compositions. Isaac heard all the praise for the new device from other writers, but stubbornly refused to investigate these devices. “I preferred to pretend they did not exist and typed away stubbornly.”

His editor asked Dr. Asimov to write about his experiences of changing from a typewriter to a word processor. Isaac had to admit that he did not own one. The editor saw this as a great opportunity. He purchased a word processor and had it delivered to Isaac. The Word Processor would be set-up, and Asimov would write about his transition to the new technology.

The man who taught me how chemical catalysts work, what Olber’s Paradox means, what a factorial is, what relativity theory means, and countless other scientific concepts, was paralyzed with fear—by a word processor? How could this be? Technical support people spent hours with Asimov, who admits he wanted to quit several times over. The Good Doctor eventually did learn how to use the word processor, and was pleased how it
improved his writing experience. “But why I ask myself, was I so resistant to something that was sure to help me (and does) and that did not even cost me anything to begin with?” There had been many changes in typewriters over the years, but none of these caused him any monumental angst. He also realized upon reflection that:

Human beings learn how to handle numerous complicated devices in their lifetimes. The learning is not always easy, but once the complications are learned — if they are learned properly — it all  becomes automatic. The thought of abandoning it and learning something else, of going through the process  again, is terribly frightening.

For instance, the system of common measures in the United States—inches, feet, yards, miles, or ounces and pounds, or pints, quarts and gallons–is an incredibly complicated and nonsensical farrago of units. The rest of the civilized world uses the metric system, which in comparison is simplicity itself. Using the metric system would save us endless hours of educating our youngsters and be beneficial to our entire industrial infrastructure…..

And yet there is no question that the American public fears the metric system and, if it has its will, it would cling to the present system forever. Nor is it because the public uses the common units with any great skill. Very few Americans are completely at ease with them, and know, offhand, how many pecks there are in a bushel, or how many square feet in an acre, or, for that matter how many inches are in a mile. Yet we won’t change it for a system any child can learn in a day and remember for a lifetime. We invent reasons for resisting the change, but the real  reason is that we dread the process of re-learning.

It is my feeling that re-education must be recognized for the highly difficult and (even more so) embarrassing process it is.”

So why would it be embarrassing? Isaac offers no explanation.  From my viewpoint, I suspect it is because we feel we are reduced to an almost pre-educated state, like a small child. Do you remember when you were so young that you had to ask one of your parents what time it was?—because you could not read a clock.  It made you feel powerless. If you were  informed, as an adult, that new clocks were to be introduced everywhere, in place of the old, and that you had no idea how to read them, your response could easily be fear of returning to that helpless juvenile state. The reaction would probably be emotional and not intellectual. One of the first skills one learns as a child is measurement. It is understandable that the suggestion of learning a new system would be met with every intellectual excuse in your arsenal—as to why you should not.

The metric system is easier, but without learning and using it exclusively for a period of time, you have only your current experience with which to judge its utility. The 95% of the world that uses the metric system sees the situation from the other end of the telescope. They gesticulate with exasperation that you don’t see the irrational complication of the imperial grab-bag of units and methods.

I can only think of one way an American might be able to see through the other end of the metric telescope—and see how the rest of the world views us.. That is by using money as an example. We early on embraced the “metric system of money” called decimal currency. The United States was the first. We take for granted that there are 100 cents in a dollar. Do we use any other units?–of course not, no matter what the amount of money involved.  Suppose we have say $3,466 .56 in a bank account, we see dollars and cents, and nothing else. Have you ever stopped and said to yourself, “that’s just not enough units to describe money, I need more!, I feel constrained!” Never.

Farthing and Half Penny

Suppose next you wanted to make money by importing items from Great Britain, and they had stubbornly never embraced decimal “metric” currency. You would have to figure out the price of the item and then convert it to dollars. First you would have to understand that the basic unit of money was the pound, which is 20 shillings. Each shilling is 12 pennys pence.  Each penny could be divided into two half pennies, or four farthings. Now two half pence equal a penny, and six pence equal a “tanner”, 2 shillings and 6 pence equal one half crown.  A crown is 5 shillings of course.

Now that you have mastered the values of money below 1 pound, you are ready to learn that 1 guinea is one pound and one shilling or 21 shillings. So 1/3 of a guinea is seven shillings. Believe it or not, there are more values of British currency you could learn. But I think I’ve made my point.

It is easy to see how an American, looking at this situation, and wanting to do trade with a British business, would feel the urge to demand to know why on earth the British don’t use “metric” currency. It’s so much easier. An American could well react exactly the way 95% of the world population does when confronted with gallons, pints, quarts, ounces (mass) and ounces (fluid), inches, feet, miles, chains (yes we use chains to build roads), grains, and other assorted, and un-needed measurement units. The exasperation an American could feel, at the British refusal to adopt the obvious improvement of decimal currency, could easily cause them blow their top and ask: “What’s wrong with you British!–Why won’t you change!–are you fools!”

The rest of the world learned the simple metric system as children, and react with shock and horror at the complicated way we choose to measure our world in the United States. It makes no sense to them, and it shouldn’t make sense to us either.

Updated 2012-08-12

Related essay:  Longhairs