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The measurement problem

In this video, Dr David Beer takes a look at what it's like to be living in the lab.
We’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”.
Where 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,
we’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
over 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,
or 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.
And 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.
Measures 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.

How many likes did you get on that post? How far did you walk today? How well did you drive your car? As Dr David Beer discusses in the video above, the modern world is full of ways of measuring and being measured.

Measurement is embedded in how we live. We are used to things like how fast we’re going in a car, but also now step counts, number of friends or followers, and how often we buy certain items in a supermarket. We’ve turned these measurements into a game, a competition, with ourselves and others. This week, we asked you to gather metrics about your own screen time, in fact. Often, these measures can be useful: allowing you to keep to the speed limit or reflect on your own wellbeing. However, they also can have other impacts, and the act of measurement has an effect on the thing being measured. We might make corrections to change the metrics, for better or for worse, and our behaviour is altered thanks to the act of measurement. Our ability to get things like insurance or a job might depend on being measured or on past measurements.

The impact of all of this measurement goes beyond trying to change those metrics. The measurement of something imposes a value upon it. We focus on trying to increase our performance in those ‘valuable’ areas, and at the same time anything that isn’t measured is devalued. In a workplace context, this might mean a focus on number of calls at the expense of quality of service, because this is what is measured and what the company rates employees on.

As we looked at last week, there is a huge amount of data accumulated about each person these days, and the ever-increasing technologies and use of measurement add to this data. One version of the self becomes a kind of data outline, a reflection of your habits and metrics which can be used to categorise you, but also to form assumptions and stereotypes. In the next step, we’ll look at the potential effects on the self and society of data and inequalities it might perpetuate or cause.

What we measure and how we react to that measurement has, therefore, effects not only upon ourselves, but on society and how we interact with it.

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