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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