Monthly Archives: June 2015

control measures

Here is another passage from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) about quantification and measurement as mechanisms of social control. 

By deliberately cutting off certain phases of man’s personality, the warm life of private sensation and private feelings and private perceptions, the sciences assisted in building up a more public world which gained in accessibility what it lost in depth. To measure a weight, a distance, a charge of electricity, by reference to pointer readings established within a mechanical system, deliberately constructed for this purpose, was to limit the possibility of errors of interpretation, and cancel out the differences of individual experience and private history. And the greater the degree of abstraction and limitation, the greater was the accuracy of reference. By isolating simple systems and simple causal sequence the sciences created confidence in the possibility of finding a similar type of order in every aspect of experience: it was, indeed, by the success of science in the realm of the inorganic that we have acquired whatever belief we may legitimately entertain in the possibility of achieving similar understanding and control in the vastly more complex domain of life.

As I read that, the upshot of it is that we embrace quantification as individuals because it makes our experiences seem more socially accessible. Converting our personal experience to something that can be quantified, commensurable with other sorts of experience, gives us a sense of belonging that more than compensates for the loss of nuance and privacy that that sort of measurement entails. We are eager to so simplify the representation of our lives so that other people can validate it, confirm it was real and it mattered.

The principles driving the simplification is the pursuit of “accuracy”: when personal experience is sufficiently simplified to the degree where it may be accurately predicted on those terms, in the confines of those limitations of the possible, it then reads as authentic to those who have bought into that general system. 

This is the allure of Big Data and predictive analytics to the individuals who volunteer to participate in it or are looking for ways to make the inescapability of it more tolerable. Even though it reduces the scope of human experience to some crude metrics, at least it deems us worth counting, and that other people actually want us among their number.

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Quantifying quislings

In Will Davies’s The Happiness Industry, toward the end of a chapter called “Living in the Lab,” he describes how the ad agency JWT, when it went international to manage the General Motors account, tried to conduct surveys in European countries to gather data about consumer behavior there. Such market research is commonplace now, but in 1927, it was not: Davies points out how these survey takers were regarded with hostility, one even getting himself thrown down the stairs of an apartment building in Copenhagen.

The resistance to being surveyed, Davies argues, was a matter of seeing sentiment surveys for what they are: “a strategy of power.” They are attempts to transform people into data so they can be processed the way data is processed. Individuals report their feelings the way a fuel gauge reports how much is in the tank. It has no control over that level; it can only display it. It is up to those taking the reading to figure out how to change what the gauge passively reports.

A similar logic, as Davies traces throughout the book, is at work with all forms of quasi-objective, data-driven sentiment analysis. The book explains how the technocratic pursuit of happiness is a general alibi for intensified social control in which a subject’s self-assessment is rejected in favor of neurological evaluation and Big Data–driven predictive analytics. When brain scans purport to reveal what people are “really feeling,” this is to pre-empt those people from having any say in it. They can only act blindly, follow instructions they are given, until the monitors tell them they are experiencing the correct, sanctioned neurological reactions. 

This broadens to a general indictment of the quantification of feeling  

The main thing is that if unhappiness can be expressed via instruments of measurement, if success can be understood in terms of quantifiable outcomes, then critical and emancipatory projects are ensnared, and their energies are harnessed.

Efforts to track the wants and feelings of the public became inseparable from efforts to dictate those wants and feelings: Measuring the public mood is tantamount to manipulating it. Then you can bypass democratic deliberation in favor of reading the public mood through data analysis, and adjusting that mood with behavioral nudges and other paternalistic mechanisms for controlling the environment and the choices subjects can conceive of. 

Self-quantification is no exception; it’s a form of collaboration with power. Sometimes it may seem as though self-quantification is a kind of efficient way to express oneself, of making oneself legible, but it’s a process of abstraction in which one renders oneself commensurate with others, and ultimately fungible. You turn yourself into data so that the institutional power structures can administer control over you, tell you what your numbers mean and what they should be. It’s self-surveillance, pre-emptive surrender. Measurement is a form of power exercised over the measured, in service of the interests of the rulers over the ruled. Quantification is the policeman in your head.

One can’t use self-measurement as a means of resisting or undoing the miseries inflicted by bureaucratic power that is administered by means of quantification. (The best one can hope for is temporary or tactical relief, often at someone else’s expense. Quantification makes zero-sum games possible and explicit.) By submitting voluntarily to quantifying regimes one lends assent and support to an ideological climate in which “utilitarian, biological and behaviorist representations of human life” are the only legitimate ways to understand ourselves. These ways of understanding don’t permit for any noninstrumental behavior; they deny the possibility of the sort of noncalculating spontaneity that we have been taught to regard as authentic. Instead, everything can be rationalized and authenticated in terms of its usefulness, its contribution to maximizing measurable quantities. Quantifications of the social (which boil down to money) replace the possibility of other sorts of qualitative relations within it. 

Davies describes the acceptance of behaviorialist accounts of the self and self-quantification as developing a “split personality” in which we “train ourselves to be more suspicious of our thoughts” basically so we can accept the thoughts being imposed by power, which we are incentivized in various ways to accept. Among these incentives: we become qualified for employment or health insurance, we evade more explicitly punitive forms of control, we speak the technocratic discourse of policymakers, we can become “normal.” For most people these rewards probably don’t fully compensate for an anxious life under perpetual audit, divided against oneself while technocratic and business elites conquer, but there doesn’t seem to be any other deal on offer.

The camera in your consciousness

The change is from an introspective to a behaviorist psychology, from the fulsome sorrows of Werther to the impassive public mask of an Ernest Hemingway. Facing hunger and death in the midst of a wilderness, a stranded aviator writes in his notes: “I built another raft, and this time took off my clothes to try it. I must have looked good, carrying the big logs on my back in my underwear.” Alone, he still thinks of himself as a public character, being watched: and to a greater or less degree everyone, from the crone in a remote hamlet to the political dictator on his carefully prepared stage is in the same position. This constant sense of a public world would seem in part, at least, to be the result of the camera and the camera eye that developed with it. If the eye be absent in reality, one improvises it wryly with a fragment of one’s consciousness. The change is significant: not self-examination but self-exposure; not tortured confession but easy open candor; not the proud soul wrapped in his cloak, pacing the lonely beach at midnight, but the matter-of-fact soul, naked, exposed to the sun on the beach at noonday, one of a crowd of naked people.

That is from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934). The camera in our heads isn’t pointed outward and we’re not looking through its lens; instead, he argues, it’s pointed at us and we have to pander to it. Mumford says this makes us “matter-of-fact” in our self-presentation, since we take the camera’s permanent presence for granted. There is no time when we are not being observed, so we have no possibility to prepare for it, no space to know what the alternative feels like anymore. 

Mumford links “candor” to a sort of empty-headed, nonreflexive presence — an unawareness of the possibility of privacy akin to what animals appear to exhibit. He sees an indistinguishable “crowd” of basically dehumanized beings who are surveilled into a state of unselfconsciousness and can be driven behaviorally, like laboratory rats.

“Self-examination,” Mumford assumes, can only occur when we believe no one else is watching; only then can we see ourselves as we are and not in terms of our performance for others. Even the stranded aviator imagines an audience and falsifies himself into a “public character.” Mumford seems to think that there is a truth about ourselves beyond the social performances. That suggests a belief that we are not always already performing for ourselves. 

In Mumford’s reading of the aviator’s performance, the aviator would be better off communing with his “real self” in total isolation rather than connecting with the internalized community in his mind to maintain a sense of the very possibility of connection. But what if his “real self” isn’t the performer but the audience? We may be our own primary audience, performing constantly to ourselves the possibility of our inclusion in something bigger, trying to convince ourselves that our internal monologue is more consequential than just being an echo in our head. The development of a self doesn’t precede that quest for relevance; it may instead stem from it. 

There is no identity that is not social; the idea of a camera just allows us to technologize that reality — it allows us to replace the daunting presence of other humans with a machine that serves as their proxy. Then we can go about thinking of how we can master the protocols of that machine rather than worry about how we can never fully master the unpredictability of other people’s judgment. The camera lets us dream that it’s only machines that ever really see us.