The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social ペーパーバック – 2019/3/18
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In today’s world, numbers are in the ascendancy. Societies dominated by star ratings, scores, likes and lists are rapidly emerging, as data are collected on virtually every aspect of our lives. From annual university rankings, ratings agencies and fitness tracking technologies to our credit score and health status, everything and everybody is measured and evaluated.
In this important new book, Steffen Mau offers a critical analysis of this increasingly pervasive phenomenon. While the original intention behind the drive to quantify may have been to build trust and transparency, Mau shows how metrics have in fact become a form of social conditioning. The ubiquitous language of ranking and scoring has changed profoundly our perception of value and status. What is more, through quantification, our capacity for competition and comparison has expanded significantly – we can now measure ourselves against others in practically every area. The rise of quantification has created and strengthened social hierarchies, transforming qualitative differences into quantitative inequalities that play a decisive role in shaping the life chances of individuals.
This timely analysis of the pernicious impact of quantification will appeal to students and scholars across the social sciences, as well as anyone concerned by the cult of numbers and its impact on our lives and societies today.
‘In this brilliant book, Steffen Mau does not simply demonstrate the distortions that occur when excessive reliance is placed on statistical indicators, but shows how the current mania for measurement and quantification eats away at social relationships and even our sense of ourselves.’
Colin Crouch, Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick
‘Mau, a leading expert on inequality in Europe, is tackling a question of growing significance: the relationship between quantification, status comparison and social competition. His probing analysis offers a fresh perspective for understanding the brave new world of self-monitoring we live in. It offers convincing explanations for current anxieties of performance that are fed by growing inequality and neoliberalism. Influential in Germany, this excellent book should find a wide readership in the English-reading public.’
Michèle Lamont, past President, American Sociological Association
"A timely, informative and appropriately pessimistic book."
‘A wide-ranging tour through rankings and ratings, stars and points, charts and graphs… the metric society may prove a means for faraway data overlords to capture power and entrench inequality in the guise of efficiency. It risks descending into a 21st-century dystopia that is almost as bleak, in its impersonal way, as those imagined in the darkest novels of the 20th.’
The resulting data arms race leads to an increasing competitivization and marketization of social phenomena. Ratings and rankings become the new currencies for increasing comparison shopping and self-assertion within and among societies. Think for instance about rating agencies’ verdict on countries, the signal value of credit score and university rankings, the quantified health status of individuals or the liked-based reputations on social media. Rankings have a dual purpose after all: 1. Conferring praise and public recognition on the best and 2. showering blame and shame on the worst. Building symbolic capital in such an environment is not a luxury, but a necessity for attaining and maintaining a certain ranking that resonates with the ego of most countries and businesses and their citizens, customers, and employees.
The shared, firm belief in the validity of ratings and rankings as well as their visualization in charts and graphs are key drivers of their potency. Mr. Mau rightly reminds his readers that Big Data does not lead to a fairer world where everyone is judged only by what they really are or do. Despite the many advances in data collection and analysis, automated evaluation and selection algorithms have a high potential for fallacy. In many instances, algorithmic selection and sorting processes have been known for adapting reality to their models rather than vice versa.
Mr. Mau is at his best when he reviews the risks and side-effects of the intensifying quantification of social phenomena:
1. Entities and individuals are conditioned to game the system: Do what one inspects, not necessarily what one expects.
2. The loss of professional control amid the cult of evaluation of professionals by the layman and the general public.
3. The waste of time and energy, often leading to a blurring of lines between meaningful reporting and cosmetic indicators.
4. The glorification of conformity at the expense of both diversity and heterogeneity.
5. The fallout of increasing transparency: Only those who are counted count. Only those who are evaluated have value.
6. The pressure exerted by popular reviews.
7. The increasing technological surveillance in the workplace.
8. The fine-tuning operated by insurance companies, private pension providers, and health insurance funds.
9. The tyranny of averages, benchmarks, and body images.
10. The cult of competition, leading to even more inegalitarian and aggressive societies. Competition among individuals and entities replaces class conflict.
In summary, the strive for numerical excellence makes most entities and individuals more predictable and calculating, paradoxically undermining its value in the process.
The basic overview of the chapters, as presented in the introduction:
1: the instrumental role of the numerical medium, calculation and metric standardization have played in the institutionalization of politics and markets; digitalization and economization of society
2: relationship between the numerical medium and social comparison; how statistical data leads society to develop a ‘dispositive’ of comparison which places us in competition with each other
3: ratings, rankings and their social impact; looks at university rankings and rating agencies that llok at the creditworthiness of states, companies, and investment opportunities
4: scoring and screening as methods of determining social worth; looks at credit ratings, health and mobility scores, and academic performance measurements
5: the new evaluation cult that encourages us to rate products, services, and individuals
6: how self-tracking contributes to the spread of new forms of competition and optimization
7: questions who wields the power of nomination in this game of numbers; economic indicators and performance parameters are gaining ascendancy, and, with them, economically trained personnel and interests; the ability of algorithmic power to evade the issue of legitimacy and bolster commercial interests
8: side-effects of quantification, including supplanting professional standards, creation of false incentives due to target indicators; wasting of time and resources through intensified competition
9: relationship between quantification and control; increased surveillance that comes with transparency of numbers
10: the reconstitution of social inequality as a result of quantification
This book is well referenced, should you wish to consult the research the author refers to .
The Metric Society provides much worthwhile food for thought.
But that’s JustMe.
So, for the general reader, it might be better to find something more basic to start with. There is a good bibliography to help you find a book at your level of need and capability.
Robert C. Ross