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.

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