This heavily theoretical piece provides a vital counterweight to the pressure for “scale” in technological projects, and can give cultural heritage project managers a useful vocabulary for questioning demands to follow tightly regulated software development processes when it is not appropriate for community-driven, humanistic work. Tsing shows that while “scalability” is defined as projects that can become larger without changing the nature of the project — expand without changing — such scalability is possible “only if project elements do not form transformative relationships that might change the project as elements are added.” Tsing then highlights the fact that those transformative relationships are necessary for the emergence of diversity, and powerfully argues that meaningful diversity is “diversity that might change things” — and that the model of “scalability” is antithetical to meaningful diversity. These theoretical concepts can be applied to almost any digital community archive project.
“When small projects can become big without changing the nature of the project, we call that design feature “scalability.” Scalability is a confusing term because it seems to mean something broader, the ability to use scale; but that is not the technical meaning of the term. Scalable projects are those that can expand without changing. My interest is in the exclusion of biological and cultural diversity from scalable designs. Scalability is possible only if project elements do not form transformative relationships that might change the project as elements are added. But transformative relationships are the medium for the emergence of diversity. Scalability projects banish meaningful diversity, which is to say, diversity that might change things.
Scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature. Making projects scalable takes a lot of work. Yet we take scalability so much for granted that scholars often imagine that, without scalable research designs, we would be stuck in tiny microworlds, unable to scale up. To “scale up,” indeed, is to rely on scalability—to change the scale without changing the framework of knowledge or action. There are alternatives for changing world history locally and for telling big stories alongside small ones, and “nonscalability theory” is an alternative for conceptualizing the world. But before considering these alternatives, let me return to that familiar domain for experience with scalability: digital technology.”