Skip to 0 minutes and 3 secondsWe’re increasingly able to measure our body and our bodily routines on lots of different fronts - so we get lots of wearable devices like fitbits, apple watches, jawbones. These sort of devices allow the body to be measured. These are what people called the bio-politics back in the late ‘70s. A way of measuring the body so power can be exercised upon it. So we start to think about how well we’re looking after ourselves. We’re able to measure that through apps that measure our sleep or exercise. So at the level of the body we’re increasingly able to measure in order to understand our bodies and their performance. Now this is what William Davies, a political economist, has called “living in the lab”.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsWhere it used to be the case that we’d have to go into a laboratory environment for our bodies to be measured, now we can do it in the social world, and the whole social world becomes a space of experimentation where we’re being measured as part of the social world. Now metrics then go beyond just the body. If we think in terms of consumer capitalism,

Skip to 1 minute and 10 secondswe’re measured in terms of our worthiness as a customer: what’s our credit worthiness? What’s our credit score? And then one of the most obvious ways that metrics have been escalating and intensifying

Skip to 1 minute and 22 secondsover the years is in the workplace: Workplace metrics that measure our performance, our talent, our contribution, our efficiency, our performitivity. All of these things are captured in different data visualisations and different tables that report how long we’ve been dealing with a customer, how many times we’ve been able to upsell, how quickly we’ve been able to serve somebody,

Skip to 1 minute and 47 secondsor when I was working in a call centre: how long I’d spent in a toilet that week. These things all become measures of our worth in the workplace. Now the beginning of this can be tracked back to round about the 1820s when Theodor Porter described what can be called a trust in numbers emerged, and the census began to develop rapidly in that period. And populations were measured in lots of different ways in order for them to be governed. Now, what we’ve got is a grand intensification of that metricisation on our everyday lives, on a scale we couldn’t’ve even dreamt of back then, but which has escalated rapidly in recent years.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 secondsAnd the data infrastructures about us mean that metrics can be used in lots of different ways to measure us and then to get us to do things. So when we’re faced with a measure, they don’t just capture something about us.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 secondsMeasures have programmed into them a set of outcomes: a set of desired outcomes for our behaviours and our actions. So at the same time we’re being measured in the workplace, for example, we’re also being pushed towards certain behaviours. A kind of process of what’s called reactivity. We measure the social world - we change that social world. Because the things that we measure change to respond to those measures and the things that aren’t measured become invisible and therefore become devalued.

The measurement problem

You’ve got a problem with your electricity bill, so you’ve rung up the company to talk to somebody. How are they prioritising how quickly they should take your call? Are you just in a queue with everyone else, or are you being ranked according to how important they think you are? What data have they got on you to determine that ranking? And when they do answer, will they give you the time your problem needs, or will they be desperate to shake you off and get on with the next call in the queue?

We’re being measured in lots of different ways. In social media we’re being pushed to compete on things like our number of friends or followers, and the number of shares or retweets we get. It becomes a competition. The internet is full of advice on how we might improve our social media performance and get more followers: how we might become better social media users based on the metrics. Our ability to interact is being measured and judged based upon those measurements.

And it’s not just social media. Most jobs these days will more-than-likely have some sort of workplace metric that’s measuring our performance and our contribution. What happens when we come at the bottom of the workplace league table? How can we make sure that doesn’t happen?

There are new measurements, and new ways of being measured, coming along all the time, measuring the effectiveness and outcomes of what we do. Measurement is now embedded in how we live. Those measures can be helpful: it’s good to know how fast we’re going in a car, or even how long we’ve spent in front of a screen. But we then also make corrections based on those measurements: we slow down; we take a break from our computers. As any quantum scientist can tell you, the act of measurement has an effect on the thing being measured. And this is true on a sociological scale too: the measurement pushes us towards certain behaviours (like the football players adjusting their game play according to data or people trying to beat step targets when using wearable technology, which we’ll look at in the next step).

The measurement of something imposes a value upon it. And we become locked into a contest to increase our performance in that ‘valuable’ area. That which isn’t measured is consequently devalued. If you’re measured on the number of calls you take, but you aren’t measured on the quality of the service you deliver, you’re likely to start prioritising speed over substance.

What we measure, then, and how we react to that measurement, have significant effects upon our social world.

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This video is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York