The Over-Quantification of Life

The idea that all endeavors can be distilled down to statistics has put us in the Over-Quantification Box.
Correspondent Chad D. recently submitted a thought-provoking commentary on the Over-Quantification of Life:
“I think you could constructively explore the over-QUANTIFICATION of the US. Or we could call it the Wal-Martization of the US. The only that that counts is a number (i.e. price, sales, clients, patients, tickets, arrests, convictions, fines, sex partners, scores, averages, etc.).
What is missing is quality. I think you’ve mentioned something similar before talking about junk products with a short lifespan, but this way of doing things pervades our society.
I would argue that in nearly every area of society, quantity rather than quality rules the day. In the Criminal Justice system, officers and their immediate supervisors are evaluated based on how many tickets/arrests are made and/or how many complaints are answered. Prosecutors are judged by how many defendants go to jail. Judges are judged by how many cases they clear and how many cases are on their docket. Prisons want more prisoners. Legislators are rated on how many laws they passed. I remember Ron Paul was castigated for not passing many if any laws while in office.
I could go on with banking, investing, medicine, education, sports, farming, etc. Quality has been left in the dust by the system. The quality that remains is due to the good people who are still in the system. I don’t know what really drives this phenomena, but I would say that usury is part of it. Usury demands that the system go ever faster to ‘produce’ more and more to feed its ever hungry stomach.
But there must be something more to it than that. Ideas/thoughts?”
Thank you, Chad, for an insightful introduction to a profound topic we all experience in daily life.
Let’s start with Chad’s reference to usury, i.e. interest on debt. When we borrow money, the interest we pay over the term of the loan can add up to far more than the sum borrowed, depending on the rate of interest and the duration of the loan.
Over time, indebtedness and the interest due on all the debt diminishes the net income remaining to pay for everything other than interest, and the household/ state / economy is hollowed out.
This is one reason for the biblical notion of debt jubilees, in which all debts are periodically forgiven to remove the drag of debt on debtors and the economy at large.
The only way to sustain expanding debt is 1) inflation, which enables borrowers to pay interest with “cheaper” money and 2) expanding income.
Let’s say I owe $10,000, and my annual wage is $30,000. With modest but sustained inflation, my wage eventually doubles (assuming it keeps up with inflation) while my debt remains $10,000 minus whatever principal I’ve paid.
Alternatively, if inflation is near-zero but my wage rises by 10% a year, eventually my wage will double to $60,000, while my debt remains $10,000 minus whatever principal I’ve paid.
I think Chad is describing something rather subtle but very real: expanding debts require an equivalent expansion of income, i.e. productivity, to provide debtors with enough income to service the rising debt loads and have enough left to pay the rest of their obligations and to fund the consumption the economy depends on for growth.
This is a driver of demand for increased productivity that is rarely if ever recognized. This demand for increased productivity then drives the over-quantification of the processes and outcomes of every sector and endeavor.
If we think back to the early days of industrialization, a key tool to identify bottlenecks in production and improve productivity was breaking down the entire process into discrete steps that could be measured and quantified.
Quality control was also quantified, which enabled the gradual improvement not just of production but of the quality of the output. This is the foundation of the Deming Prize for Development of Quality Control/Management in Japan, which recognizes contributions to Total Quality Management (TQM).
The prize honors Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who taught that “by adopting appropriate principles of management, organizations can increase quality and simultaneously improve productivity.”
It was all too natural, if fundamentally false, to reckon that these same statistical tools of quantification could be profitably applied to every field, from education to criminal justice to healthcare.
While certain aspects of these endeavors might benefit from being measured, counted and quantified, the idea that all endeavors can be distilled down to statistics has put us in the Over-Quantification Box Chad described: by relying solely on quantification, we’ve lost a truly useful sense of quality and outcome.
There are multiple problems with quantification. I often mention the key flaw: we only recognize what we measure. If it isn’t measured, it simply ceases to exist in a quantified world.
Another flaw: many activities and endeavors cannot be distilled down to statistics. We can go through the motions of counting something or other, but this process misses the essence of the endeavor or process.
We’re also tempted to invoke flawed methods of measure. Take the system many colleges now use in which students are invited to rate (quantify) their professors.
Any such survey method is self-selecting, i.e. the students who choose to rate their professors are self-selected. So if the 20% who dislike a teacher complete the survey while the 60% who liked the teacher do not, the teacher’s rating will be harmfully inaccurate.
Students are not unbiased observers. Those who received poor grades might seek a form of payback by giving the offending professor low marks.
There are even subtler flaws in what we measure and how we measure. In a previous Musings Report, I discussed the World War II-era damage reports on aircraft returning from bombing missions over Nazi Germany. The idea was to study the damage inflicted by fighters and flak with an eye on strengthening the aircraft’s weak points.
Mathematician Abraham Wald hit on a profound flaw in the methodology: the really important damage reports could not be filed, because it was the bombers which had been shot down that held the vital clues to the aircraft’s weaknesses. The aircraft that had been shot down could not be studied, so they effectively ceased to exist. This fatally distorted the results of the statistical analysis.
Here is a link that describes the study: Survivorship Bias
The goal of improving productivity is laudable, but justice (and many other aspects of human society) cannot be reduced to counting convictions. This dependence on quantification creates perverse incentives to game the system and push up the numbers to evoke a success that is phantom.
The infamous “body counts” of the Vietnam War come to mind, as do prosecutors’ heavy reliance on plea bargaining to up their conviction count.
Students are now slavishly instructed to serve one goal: to improve their scores on tests that like the WWII bomber study, ignore what cannot be measured easily, yet is actually vital.
Quantification is easier than actually studying complex problems and situations, and it can generate an illusion of knowledge and insight. This is the danger of over-quantification and Big Data, that is, the over-reliance on over-quantification to make assessments and judgments about endeavors in which the key dynamics and meanings cannot be captured or illuminated by quantification alone.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 27. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to major contributors ($50 or more annually), subscribers and patrons ($5 or more monthly).

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