Ubiquitous measurement

by Rob Horning

3 October 2008


On his blog a few weeks ago, Kevin Kelly celebrates what I complained about in this recent column: the growing ability to monitor and measure everything. I argued that fashioning databases of ourselves reduces our capacity for selfhood and enslaves us to quantitative ways of evaluating our experiences; Kelly, however, sees all this “metering” as an opportunity to create shareholder value.

In the long run, there is nothing that cannot be made more valuable by metering it. (And in this recursive world, even metering is not too cheap to meter, so metering the meters is a good strategy as well.) We are rapidly inventing new sensors to cheaply, accurately, and continuously measure all things in all dimensions: geo-graphical location, speed, consumption, health, fitness, repairablity, connection, performance, rest, charge, and a million other vectors.

It’s true that you can’t profit from what you can’t measure. But it still seems short-sighted to celebrate everything being metered, and to promote the incursion of measurement further into the private lives of individuals, as if they are being measured for their own benefit. It’s instead the final obliteration of idea that any part of life takes place outside of the commercial nexus. To this vision of the future, everything of any significance, any piece of self-knowledge or self-enhancement will come filtered through the valves and gauges of the commercial machine. Outside of that, we don’t actually exist; unmeasured we are ghosts. It won’t be impossible to be a ghost in this future, but it will be a difficult choice to stick to; it will be hard to be content with merely haunting the lives of others, who will most likely not have made the same choice, since the blandishments of the measured life are not negligible.

What are these blandishments? Kelly points to the “freeconomy” our data streams support: “Cheaply metering data, in fact, is what propels the free economy. Metering is a type of attention. Products and services will be given away in exchange for the meta data about their use. Data about the free is now more valuable than the free thing itself.” On the surface that sounds like nonsense: If the thing is free, than it has no economic value to anyone. But the stuff is not truly free. Kelly continually labels goods and services as “free” even when the payment is being extracted as surveillance: “I can get free email, free storage, free photo manipulation tools, free genealogical sharing, free phone service, free twittering, free .. well almost free anything ... knowing that the hosts are monitoring (metering) my usage.” Being watched is the cost, and for most people it is negligible, because they are online exhibitionists. (Social networking, as I was trying to argue here, invites us all to become online exhibitionists, an attractive appeal because the public forum—where our behavior can be “metered”—is the primary place to establish our selfhood, which, in a mediated world, derives from being observed and judged.) But nonetheless it can be very costly, as the information is used to construct filters around us, affecting the choice architecture we confront and subtly changing just what it is that we are “free” to do, online and elsewhere. The more data we generated, the more we become confined by the preferences it predicts for us. The field in which we can discover spontaneity, or experience serendipity, shrinks. Perhaps in the future we will look back and see that these qualities were worth surrendering, that spontaneity was overrated. But chances are that the impossibility of spontaneity will make the promise of spontaneity a very powerful marketing tool.

Of course, there is the alternate possibility that the avalanche of data will create a new field for accidental discoveries and serendipitous linkages. If metering is as recursive as Kelly predicts, with metering itself being metered, and so on, the infinite flow of information will become even more unmanageable. With an infinite pool to draw from, “usefulness” and meaning can be extracted with the same arbitrarity that allows astrology to derive useful information from the stars. It requires only a clever manipulator of data to proclaim a significance to a pattern in the miasma. Rhetorical skill trumps statistical analysis when there are always more and more statistics to draw from and present as truth. Objective truth recedes even further from access as the data tide rises. The more data there is, the easier it is to lose sight of the correlations that truly signify—whatever that means. As Kelly himself notes, “The skills to parse and divine meaningful patterns out of this new environment will become paramount and eagerly sought.  Those who control the gateways to this metered information will be kings.” “Divine” is an apt choice of words. But controlling the gateway will be less important than having the unscrupulous facility to manipulate the information that is flowing. This is the mettle from which kings of the information age are made—demagoguery.

Measuring everything merely intensifies the need for trustworthy filters, which makes the service Google provides more necessary. “Google and web 2.0 companies realize this,” Kelly writes of the looming information treasure trove. “They meter everything they can because the data about things is more valuable than the thing itself.” At face value, this can’t be true. Metadata is derivative of the “thing”; without the thing that people are primarily interested in knowing about, there is no metadata from which to extract value. It’s like arguing that the credit-default-swap market can continue to expand without any underlying loans to insure. (Arguably the credit crisis exploded in part because investors lost sight of the relevance of those underlying loans to those swaps and began trading CDS contracts as though they were independent assets.)

Measuring everything is clearly valuable to Google, but not necessarily for us, who are interested in things in themselves and not profiting from ways to label and sort them. The value of metering is ultimately parasitical.

In fact, the obsession with metadata compromises our ability to enjoy the thing itself, sidetracking us into a preoccupation with quantitative aspects of our consuming experience rather than qualitative ones. The metadata is always other than the thing itself, but it makes it easier to think we’ve processed the thing itself without investing the time to experience it directly. Because so much more stuff is being thrust at us in digitized form, we begin to see our attention as a limited resource that should be budgeted to stretch it the farthest, which means applying it to derivatives (which can aggregate and condense information about many things) instead of things themselves and allow us to process more stuff superficially, with a sense of satisfaction that we have allowed our mind to touch on more things. We become maximizers, and as Barry Schwartz explained in The Paradox of Choice, this can be debilitating.

Our attention doesn’t need budgeting as long as it is fully engaged. Being engaged, truly and thoroughly, is all we reasonably should require of ourselves; consuming more stuff for the sake of quantity itself is fruitless; we’re always left with a feeling that we should have consumed more. Ubiquitous measurement serves only to intensify that feeling.

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