Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    From the Editor

From the Editor

Numbers are arguably humankind’s most useful technology.

Jay Tolson

At a time when distraction and mendacity degrade public discourse, the heartbreaking toll of the current pandemic should at least remind us that quantification—data, numbers, statistics—are vitally important to policy, governance, and decision-making more broadly.

Confounding as they may be to some of us, numbers are arguably humankind’s most useful technology—our greatest discovery, or possibly our greatest invention. But the current global crisis should also remind us of something equally important: Good numbers, like good science, can only do so much to inform wise decisions about our personal and collective good. They cannot, in any true sense, make those decisions for us. Let the numbers speak for themselves is the rhetoric of the naïf or the con artist, and should long ago have been consigned to the dustbin of pernicious hokum. Yet how seldom in these Big Data days, in our Big Data daze, does it go unchallenged.

Or—to consider the flip side of the current bedazzlement—how often it goes challenged in exactly the wrong way, in a way that declares all facts, all data, all science to be nothing but relative, your facts versus our facts, “alternative facts.” That is the way of sophistry, where cynicism rules and might alone makes right.

Excessive or misplaced faith in the tools that should assist us in arriving at truth—a faith that can engender dangerously unreasoning or cynical reactions—is the theme of this issue. In six essays, we explore the ways the quantitative imperative has insinuated itself into various corners of our culture and society, asserting primacy if not absolute authority in matters where it should tread modestly. In the name of numbers that measure everything from GDP to personal well-being, technocrats and other masters of the postmodern economy have engineered an increasingly soulless, instrumentalizing culture whose denizens either submit to its dictates or flail darkly and destructively against them.

The origins of this nightmare version of modernity, a version that grows increasingly real, dates from at least the first stirrings of modern science in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but its distinctive institutional features emerged most clearly in the early part of the last century, when progressive thinkers and leaders in politics, business, and other walks of life sought to harness humankind’s physical and mental energies to the demands of an increasingly technocratic, consumerist society.

The subjugation of human vitality to the quantifying schedules and metrics of modernity is the story that historian Jackson Lears limns in the opening essay, “Quantifying Vitality: The Progressive Paradox.” As he explains, “The emergence of statistical selves was not simply a rationalization of everyday life, a search for order…. The reliance on statistical governance coincided with and complemented a pervasive revaluation of primal spontaneity and vitality, an effort to unleash hidden strength from an elusive inner self. The collectivization epitomized in the quantitative turn was historically compatible with radically individualist agendas for personal regeneration—what later generations would learn to call positive thinking.”

In his essay, “Schooling in the Age of Human Capital,” legal scholar Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, explores the values shaping the system that selects and trains our meritocratic elite. By valuing a quantitatively determined superiority over a range of human virtues constituting true excellence, Markovits writes, “Human capitalism distorts schooling in much the same way that financialization distorts for-profit sectors of the real economy.”

The larger story of the subversion of ethical goods through recurrent but ultimately failed efforts to establish a scientific basis for them is the subject of their coauthored book, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, by sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky. Here, in “The Calculus of Ought,” the two authors dissect a relatively recent outbreak of hubristic scientism in the positive psychology and science of human flourishing movement: “Growing out of an assortment of social and psychological sciences, with a fair amount of neuroscience thrown in, this new ‘science of human flourishing’ purports only to identify and quantify the ingredients of human thriving and well-being, but, in doing so, implicitly (and often inadvertently) ends up sneaking moral prescription through the backdoor.”

Even before Frederick Taylor enumerated his four principles of scientific management, the workplace has been the favorite haunt of bean-counting supervisors intent upon greater efficiency and productivity—usually through closer control of their workers. In “Social Physics Comes to the Workplace,” sociologist Joseph E. Davis exposes some of the more frighteningly intrusive data-based monitoring tools and techniques that now effectively bring Auguste Comte’s dream of social physics to our shop floors, offices, and cubicles. ”In the quantified workplace,” Davis observes, “the workers themselves will be no less active than management as tools for shaping an ever more productive and harmonious team. Supervision does not disappear. With the new machinery, it is extended outward, inward, and laterally.”

Quantification and Big Data are adding power and reach to something that was once—in the 1950s, particularly in the shadow of the Korean War—widely feared: brainwashing. As historian of science Rebecca Lemov relates in “Into the Whirlpool: How Predictive Data Put Brainwashing on the Spin Cycle,” the methods of those once-feared dark arts, commercialized through the hidden persuaders of advertising and more recently enhanced with deeply mined personal data, are now tolerated, if not embraced, by a populace enthralled by ever-ramifying digital connectivity. “Persuasive loops today bind tighter than they did in the midcentury moment. We are not just in the whirlpool watching the objects on the walls. We are part of it…. Streams of data are reaching tipping points of informational richness to the degree that they need be only sufficiently predictive, not perfect, to be successful.”

Pushing back against the quantitative imperative first requires understanding the ethical and even metaphysical underpinnings of data and its uses—something we should rightly have expected the emergent field of the digital humanities to undertake. To date, however, as intellectual historian Leif Weatherby argues in “Data and the Task of the Humanities,” the results of humanistic inquiry on this front have been thin. Assessing the yield. Weatherby insists that scholars must probe wider and deeper: “As political and commercial currents coalesce, the question of data impresses itself all the more heavily on the humanities. But data is not only ‘arbitrary.’ It has also gained the feeling of necessity, since we have given it agency in our infrastructures…. Yet mere condemnation may be answered by the techno-solutionists of Silicon Valley with optimism: There’s a problem? Let’s make the tools better! The humanities must go beyond the deadlock of accusation and boosterism.”

If it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools, then it’s an impoverished humanity that it is governed by its own. At a time of undeniable crisis, mastery over the tools of quantification is more important than ever; submission to them, more perilous than we might imagine.

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While our Notes and Comments section is usually given over to a wide range of topics, readers will find that this issue’s offering is devoted exclusively to various reflections on the coronavirus pandemic. These short essays appeared first on our THR blog as part of an ongoing series titled COVID Commentaries. We believed that these essays deserved memorializing in print as a testament to the enduring human effort to seek meaning in hardship and suffering. As we face ever more tragic choices ahead, it is important to reflect on our deepest cultural values as they are weighed in the balance against those fatal necessities the ancient Greeks personified as Ananke. We join in sympathy and solidarity with all who have suffered loss and with those who have struggled heroically to save lives and livelihoods amid such necessities.