Sometimes, when we take a step back, the world can seem a little bit like a bad dystopian sci-fi film. Take for example the many ways we are measured. Increasingly popular wearables, like the Fitbit or the Apple Watch, give a measure of our bodies, our heart rates, our activity levels. Phone apps can measure our sleep, our calorie intake, our lifestyle choices, emotions, wellbeing, movements, health and even our sex lives.
Consumer capitalism loves to measure our purchases, our tastes and our value as a customer – often so it can predict what to sell us next or if we are worth bothering with at all. Credit scores are used to decide whether we can borrow money and at what rate. Metrics about the places we live are used to decide our insurance premiums. At work we are constantly monitored and our performance calculated to maximise our productivity and optimise the value we generate. We judge films, hotels and books by their crowd-sourced ratings and rankings. Numerical values are used to assess anything from transport providers to hospitals and universities. We even measure our schools by shifting the pressure sideways onto the shoulders of children with anxiety-inducing Sats. In short, these numbers narrate and govern our lives.
Take social media. The very design of popular social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram encourages us to judge ourselves and others through numbers. With numbers of friends, followers, shares, likes, and comments, we are constantly confronted with measures of our ability to interact and connect with other people. Of course, numbers have long been an important part of how the social world is organised and understood. What has changed is the scale, intensity and invasiveness. The difference is that we judge and are judged through numbers much more frequently and in much greater detail.
We should be asking what we really get out of all these measures. Are they really making us more informed or helping us to make better decisions? Being bombarded with measures is hardly conducive to thoughtful decision-making or a less stressful life. Measuring ourselves and others might be fun and might feel rewarding or affirming but we can easily get hooked into competition, comparison and an obsession with performance. We are compelled to bend ourselves to suit these measures – to do the things that score well. These metrics tie us into a kind of self-analysis in which the goal is often an unattainable sort of perfection – the perfect body, the perfect consumer, the perfect networker, the perfect worker, the perfect lifestyle. This ratcheting up of measures and the pursuit of perfection is likely to create a lot of pressure and anxiety as well as an inevitable sense of failure.
We shouldn’t jettison numbers altogether. They can be empowering and revealing, they can be used to hold power to account or to challenge embedded prejudice and established misconceptions. Numbers that reveal poverty, homelessness, uneven mortality and unequal pay and conditions are all crucial to informed debate.
Yet recent events show that we need to maintain our scepticism and be cautious even with trusted sources. It is possible to retain some use of important statistics without numbers becoming the only way that we know ourselves and each other. Some measures can’t easily be escaped, but they can be downplayed, subverted or challenged. We should aim to rediscover and celebrate immeasurable qualities and argue for why they matter.
Let’s choose to make decisions that go against the numbers whilst defending our judgements and instincts. We need to make sure we don’t get sucked into seeing the world, our bodies and our social connections only in calculative terms. Instead we can reflect on what we think matters and explore forms of knowledge, ideas and choices that go beyond mere competition and ranking.
David Beer is reader in sociology at the University of York