Back in grade school, we were told that the Imperial System was a thing of the past, that eventually we’d be living the Metric System life, with all it’s base-10 logic built right in. We’d be just like the rest of the world. But those predictions have proven about as accurate as the flying cars and moon colonies that we all imagined we’d be enjoying in the year 2012.
Occasionally, the issue bubbles up and people argue back and forth about why we haven’t gone Metric, but I think it’s all about inertia. There would be a huge intellectual cost in moving to a new system—training ourselves to think of temperatures in Celsius when we’re leaving home and trying to decide on whether to grab a jacket. Straining to remember what kilometers per liter really comes down to, when we’re used to a lifetime of miles per gallon. Attempting to determine whether you’re losing enough weight, as you stare at the scale showing a strange number of kilograms.
While there are economic costs—heck, just think of the signage issues on our roads—they should be lower today than they would have been a generation ago. Many consumer products in this digital age already allow us to toggle between Imperial and Metric units. And the prevalence of smartphones means that no one has an excuse not to have a conversion app (or at least a calculator) on them at virtually all times.
What this issue comes down to is, as I said, inertia. It’s laziness. No one wants to be the generation that has to juggle two systems in their heads all the time. If we switched today, my kids would grow up pretty much thinking in Metric and would have no problem. But I feel like I’d forever be doing that calculation in my head. Even if I knew 28° C was a nice warm summer day, I think I’d always be converting it back to 82° F just to make sure I knew exactly how warm it was, based on my past experiences. We don’t want to be the ones straddling the two worlds, dealing with parts in both sizes or wondering how to deal with machinery that still had Imperial components that were no longer allowed to be manufactured.
Besides, who has the guts to push an idea like this forward in the country today? If Republicans championed the cause, Democrats would rail against it. And vice versa. And unfortunately, engineers, scientists and the like don’t have the kind of lobby that would be needed to get politicians interested. Even a public relations disaster like losing the Mars Climate Orbiter (due to a conversion mishap) didn’t move the needle on fully switching to Metric. So I guess I’ll just wait with you for that long-off day when we get the first flying car—and wonder what kind of miles per gallon that thing will get.