The Last of the Imperialists
by Jan Baughman

January 9, 2000 - Note from the Editor: You'd think that the foremost trait of the American character is the ability to change. Right? Jan Baughman does not think so. And Gary Chapman, in this week's other article offers his own ruminations on change in the wonderful world of technology.

With the recent rush of holiday shopping and millennial preparations, a momentous occasion went completely unacknowledged this December: the 25th anniversary of the Metric Conversion Act. This 1975 measure was a bold and sweeping move to finally put the US on the same plane with the rest of the world. But if you missed that celebration, in June of this year we will mark the 18th anniversary of the disestablishment of the US Metric Board. They just couldn't bring about the conversion without the mandate of a constitutional amendment.

According to the CIA (www.odci.gov), "At this time, only three countries - Burma, Liberia, and the US - have not adopted the International System of Units (SI, or metric system) as their official system of weights and measures. Although use of the metric system has been sanctioned by law in the US since 1866, it has been slow in displacing the American adaptation of the British Imperial System known as the US Customary System. The US is the only industrialized nation that does not mainly use the metric system in its commercial and standards activities, but there is increasing acceptance in science, medicine, government, and many sectors of industry."

The most readily accepted, and just about the only publicly-adopted change to metric came in sports -- track and field, where the mile became the 1600 meter, the 100-yard dash became the 100-meter dash, and the 440 became the 400. Of course, these changes made the races ever so slightly shorter and made everyone feel faster, which probably explains its easy adaptability. And we miraculously found that we could actually comprehend the distance of 100 meters, even if we couldn't run it, though we still relate distance to the length of a football field.

If we ever do happen to make the switch to metric, it will never happen in football. We continue to use the 100-yard field and always will. It is impossible to imagine John Madden saying, "they've recovered the ball on their own 37-meter line", or, "It's third down and centimeters". But, since football already has its own odd vocabulary, it may as well keep its own odd terminology of measures.

In some arenas we are succeeding in making the change. In 1988 Congress passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act - legislation designating the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce. Government agencies have gone metric, as has manufacturing in this country. Most of the sciences use metric. But the general public is another matter.

Although intellectually we know how much simpler of a system metric is, we keep trying to translate to Imperial and it doesn't work. We admit that pints and quarts and gallons are silly and arbitrary. Yet we can easily imagine what they represent -- all we have to do is think of milk. The mistake we made in our alleged switch, which only amounted to labeling in both systems, was maintaining the same container sizes. So it is no wonder that metric doesn't speak to us when a can of Diet Coke is 355 mL, a half gallon of milk is 1.89 liters and a half pint of whipping cream is 236 mL. We have no word for these sizes of containers. ("Honey, would you mind picking up 236 mL of half-and-half while you're out?") The only concept we really understand is the liter, thanks to those ubiquitous bottles of water we carry around.

If we are really serious about moving to metric, we have to adopt "total immersion", and wipe the Imperial system completely from our vocabulary. (Even the UK has abandoned it.) Forget the voluntary change, the dual labeling -- the only rational approach is to change packaging to metric units and make a clean break from all use of non-metric terms. All it will take is one speeding ticket before we learn how many kilometers per hour we can legally drive. And the ultimate motivator to we Americans who keep getting fatter and fatter is that it is much nicer to say that one weighs 133 (kilos), rather than 250 (pounds).

Our leaders speak endlessly of the impact of globalization, and it is only logical that in this spirit we make the change to metric. But for whatever reason America continues to resist, every inch of the way. And as long as we have the backing of Liberia and Burma, we will continue to ignore the rest of the world, long into the 21st century.


This Week's Other Article:

Helplessness in Face of Technology's Inexorable March a Familiar Feeling by Gary Chapman


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published January 9, 2000
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