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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.

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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