You are not your status symbol - the dark side of System Analysis

I’m reading a book now by Jaron Lanier called You are not a gadget. One of the many things that Lanier gets stuck into is the preoccupation with measurable performance, known in business-speak as KPIs, or Key Performance Indicators.
Example: my Year 12 teachers taught with one goal in mind: so that my class mates and I could best the assessment and examination results, so that we would get into the best University or TAFE course.[1]
This singular preoccupation with engineering measurable results has its problems. The chief one that Lanier points out is that in such conditions, we start re-engineering ourselves to fit into our reporting system. This can mean changing our long-term behaviour, not to mention our short-term responses.
As if in a Baudrillardian nightmare, we start to confuse the sign with the signified, the simulation with real life, and the social networking site with our actual social life. It is the latter that Lanier is particularly concerned with, though he strafes everything from MIDI to VR.

I am a big fan of quantification, professionally[2] and personally. The problem - the existential problem that is - arises when we start framing our responses to fit the criterion ‘allowed’ by the system we’re using. Some of these systems are really sophisticated - and they can have some nuanced multiple-choice responses. And yet they are finite lists never the less. As for the ‘free text field’ - I think that there’s a very strong tendency to frown upon, and devalue, any information that the system we are using can’t ‘understand’. If our response doesn’t fit with the logic of the program, then there isn’t really a place for it. A digital system is going to appear neutral and without sentiment, yet its programmers - and those, such as its users, involved in its continuing configuration - mean that it will inevitably ask loaded questions. After a while it can start to feel as if our computers are asking us ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’[3]

Facebook is a much more obvious and well known offender. When I edit my profile for instance, what assumptions are the developers making about the breadth of the human condition?
  • That I am not nomadic - that I have a fixed address.
  • My current location is an uncontested region - known by only one name. So, West Bank, Gaza Strip, the State of Palestine, and Tibet are not options (though curiously Taiwan is available, when its official title is the Republic of China).
  • That Gender is binary - I cannot be hermaphroditic or androgynous.
  • Sexual preference - kudos to Facebook that these are checkboxes, rather than radio buttons, in the ‘Interested’ question, and that it doesn’t simply default to the opposite of the user’s gender.[4]
  • That I am no more than 105 years old - the earliest ‘year of birth’ value is 1905, which is unfair considering that the oldest person alive was born in 1896.
  • That I am not unfaithful or polyamourous.[5] This, however, is a fair assumption to make.
  • I only have one religion or one political view. (Lucky for the Japanese, however, ‘Shinto-Buddhism’ is available.)
There is a mantra popping up quite a bit in the management, life-hacking, and body-hacking scenes: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” I dig it - because without knowing where we’re getting the best (or worst) results from, we can’t know where we should be focusing our energies. And, like every professional, I have a vested interested in simplifying information, and channelling that information into a sound bite that I can deliver to my client.

However there is a dark side to the mantra. What happens, for instance, to things that are difficult to quantify? Generally, they are relegated to the dustpan of a workplace’s history.

Experienced managers – presumably those who have climbed up through the ranks – may know that their team is spending time on tasks that are, in some fuzzy way, contributing to the net productivity of the organisation.[6] Yet with nothing concrete to show for their team’s efforts, they might be anxious of accusations of procrastination, and demote such tasks to ‘in your own time’. Alternatively, they might feel fear and resentment towards this blind spot in their business – since their identity and status as a manager is undermined by things they cannot easily measure. Some managers may simply be clueless about the intangible processes at play in their organisation, and scrap them out of ignorance.

This can be witnessed in the whole spectrum of mission-critical tasks, from system support to personal health. Documentation and training, for instance, is generally an afterthought of any implementation. Similarly most CEOs don’t consider encouraging staff to take a short break every half an hour - maybe grab some green tea, walk around a bit, and consequently live a few years longer - as a valid means of boosting productivity.

This is not a novel issue by any stretch. Adam Curtis’ documentary series ‘Pandora’s Box’ outlines, for instance, how the United States used System Analysis and Game Theory as part of the Cold War – as well as how the British governments of the 1960’s tried using similar theories to engineer economic growth to specific targets. And while Curtis’ documentary manages to successfully paint the twentieth century with a very broad stroke, it is worth reiterating how pervasive, and dangerous, the tendency to ‘privilege the theoretical’ can be. Sir Ken Robinson delivers an awesome speech at TED, for instance, where he asks whether schools are killing creativity. Constantly ‘playing to win’ - being strictly success focused in other words – is the worst thing for anyone, be they sports people or aspiring artists.

While I am the last person to be in favour of the modern schooling system, I would say that one of the advantages of primary school is that it provides an environment where one can safely fail forward. Yet what we are increasingly seeing is that educators and employers are becoming intolerant of experimentation. They are obsessed with the numbers at the cost of the thing they are measuring - they are confusing the score-board with the game, (in Taoist terms) the way that can be walked with The Way, (in Zen terms) the path with the goal. In Year 12 I was witness to a structuring of learning so that a four digit number – the TER at the time – could be as close to 100 as possible, yet it seems that around the world, parents and teachers are tightening the screws on students at a much younger age.

This is not good.


[1] Fortunately, we only had to endure this style of teaching for a year. After that, in University, grades almost seemed like an annoyance by lecturers – though admittedly, this might have had something to do with choosing an Arts degree. The real focus of my cohort in our undergraduate years was exploring together the wonderful world of literature, philosophy, and writing.

[2] In my job as a Technical Writer and Training Designer, we’re using a hyperactive business process mapping tool called ProVision (kind of like Microsoft Visio, but magnitudes better) which, if supported properly, can help keep track of all the files that you have created and all the issues you’ve encountered, in a really neat latticework of artefacts, activities, and roles. We’re also using the online CMS Microsoft SharePoint, which manages our tasks, catalogues our user guides, and helps facilitate better collaboration. A lot of using such tools effectively comes down to keeping the self-discipline (and, at times, disciplining others) to abide by agreed-upon standards, both in-house and system-defined – though this is true with pretty much anything. Every bit of information has its place. Together, these two tools – when were used correctly and to their full potential – can actually do all your record keeping, and automate all your reporting needs. (We don’t achieve that ideal, however, and have instead ended up having to maintain several Excel spreadsheets that track our progress, and updating several different managers verbally and electronically. This is beside the point for now, however.)

[3] This, however, is merely illustrative of how politicians, employers, definitely family, and even friends can limit and control discourse by asking questions, and responding to our answers, in very precise, and often leading ways.

[4] That being said, it seems that when neither is selected, Facebook assumes that you don’t want to say - not that you’re not actually interested in either gender. Furthermore, by listing ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ as the options to choose from, Facebook prevents adults saying that they ‘like boys’, but it also prevents teenagers, for instance (who many would consider to be still minors) from saying that they’re sexually attracted to other minors.

[5] You can only be “in a relationship” with one person - though there are petitions to allow polyamorous/polygomous relationships status to be available.

[6] And I don’t just mean looking up Cute Overload on a Monday morning.