The Tyranny of Numbers

Commonplace Newsletter #003

Welcome readers new and old to the third of Thomas J Bevan’s weekly essays on life, literature and flâneury. Previous issues can be found here.


The path to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. I disagree. I say that the path to hell is paved with numbers. With metrics and statistics. With counting and quarterly targets and measurements and calculations.

I understand that this is a contentious statement, so let me rephrase. In the same way that *the love of money* and not just money, is the root of all evil, I believe that the *over* use of numbers and not just the mere *use* of numbers is the cause of so many of the problems we face today.

Allow me to explain…

While you and I have lips and voices which

       are for kissing and to sing with 

who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch

       Invents an instrument to measure Spring with?


~e e cummings 

I had been on twitter for a month or so when I gained my 1000th follower. (Don’t worry, this is not a brag, it’s a lament). And in the fashion of the fledgling ‘influencer’ I was gravitating towards becoming I posted a regrettable humblebrag tweet that thanked my ‘followers’ (God help me) and ingratiatingly acknowledges the big accounts who had shared my ‘content’. 

The comments to this post were mainly congratulatory, as the people in the social media game are always eyeing up their fellow Remora fish to see which will become a Whale to latch on to. (Less cynically, most people are also generally kind when someone shares a victory.)

But there was one exception. Some anonymous, now forgotten to me hero replied with a picture. It was a woodcut style illustration of a donkey in side profile. The donkey had a long stick strapped to its mid section which extended in a diagonal line upwards and beyond the back of its head. And hanging down from the tip of this stick- right into the glum donkeys field of vision- was a carrot. And our anonymous poster- who I owe at least several beers to for this insight- had photoshopped in the word ‘METRICS’ beside this tantalising carrot.

He was right. Profoundly so. And not just about twitter. This applies to everything.

There is a real tendency in the modern world to count everything but see the significance of nothing. 

I see people weighing their meals and tabulating their calories without a single hint of health and vibrancy in their eyes. I see people fast-walking laps around the park, their eyes on their FitBit number, completely oblivious to the sky and the trees and the birds. I see people posting spreadsheets and projections and countdowns to their FI (Financial Independence) number without giving any indication that they will spend their freedom doing anything beyond further calculations of further metrics.

Filling out spreadsheets on your own time does not seem much of an improvement over doing it because your boss asked you to.

The unexamined life might not be worth living, but the overly quantified life soon becomes unliveable. Ride for too long on the Quantified Self (Tim) Ferris(s) wheel and you will become either nauseous or profoundly bored. 

I wonder: how much of contemporary anxiety and depression (in the sub -clinical ‘I feel sad all the time’ sense) is a result of perpetual unpaid metric management during what is allegedly our free time?

STASI as a Service

Soul of wash rag, face of poker,

Overwhelming mediocre.

~ Nietzsche on Jeremy Bentham.

In the simplest terms, if you inspire the famously humourless Nietzsche to drop what is essentially the 19th Century equivalent of a diss track about you, you know you’ve fvcked up. 

Yet in spite of this Bentham, creator of Utilitarianism and the Panopticon, doesn’t get talked about much today. 

Bentham, or more specifically his pedantic and grey worldview, the one that was roundly mocked by Dickens (the workhouse that young Oliver Twist escapes from, with its beadle Mr Bumble and it’s board of well-fed directors is run according to Benthamesque ‘philosophy’) continues to endure if not grow.

Betham’s famous Panopticon- a circular prison where all peripheral inmates are monitored by a guard in a central hub- is digital. It’s in your pocket. It’s logo is a lowercase f or a blue bird or a square and circle camera. And like the panopticon it makes profit from the poor inmates. 

Bentham said that as well as surveillance the purpose of the panopticon was to ‘grind the rogues honest’. This turn of phrase makes me feel the same vague uneasiness I feel when I here influencers bang on about ‘hustle’

But I digress.

The point I’m getting at is that Bentham was a numbers guy. He had ‘data driven solutions’. He literally invented the words ‘codify’ and ‘maximise’ 

The contemporary idea that more is better, that follow counts are a good indicator of popularity, that basing the world almost solely around economies and GDP is reasonable would have appealed to him. He lay the groundwork for them. 

He would have found sacrilegious Prime Minister Lloyd George’s quip that the War Office kept three sets of casualty figures, one to delude the cabinet, one to delude the public and one to delude itself.

Which leads on to my next point. See, not only do numbers not capture what matters (love, happiness, awe, spirituality, creativity are by definition unquantifiable beyond mere surface appearances) they are also extremely open to manipulation.

Juking The Stats

Pryzbylewski: ‘Juking the stats. Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats and Majors become Colonels. I’ve been here before.’

Grace: ‘Wherever you go, there you are’

~ The Wire, Know Your Place (S4, E09)

If you’ve ever worked in an office or a hospital or a school or in the police force you have encountered Goodhart’s Law. This heuristic in its simplest form states that: ‘When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.’

Sounds innocuous enough. But the way it manifests in reality is often harmful and corrupt.

An example: A politician decides that hospital patients must never wait more than four hours to be admitted on to a ward. The result, rather than speedier care will be that they are shuttled to unaccounted-for purgatorial anterooms for eight hours so that they ‘technically’ don’t pass the four hour limit. 

This is not malfeasance, it’s human nature when you have arbitrary targets without sufficient resources.

And we do this to ourselves, given that we are so often our own slave-driver and slave in one. We ‘Goodhart’ ourselves every time we let heart rate and daily word counts and macronutrient ratios and newsletter open rates supersede gut instinct.

The goal is *health*, not better numbers. The goal is creativity, not the mere mechanistic production of ‘content’- a Benthamite word if ever I heard one.

See, Intuition is stifled by metrics. The mind/body connection and the feeling of connection between self and world are severed when you do things against your own good sense just to make a graph inch a little further upwards.

This is how numbers become tyrannical. This is how we become addicted to apps and games. 

Understand: an apps goal, beyond a certain level of success is the further perpetuation of the app. Whether it actually manages to help you lose weight or meditate more frequently or whatever is entirely incidental.

Rather than the metrics helping you, you ending up helping the metrics.

The Bottom Line

‘Surely there is something unearthly and supernatural in spite of Bentham.’

~John Henry, Cardinal Newman

Maybe these newsletters should come with a disclaimer- the following information may be harmful to your success in the rat race. Your satisfaction with your life and the world around you may go down as well as up. 

As I said last week- I hate to be the one to break it to you.

But I see so many people who become sick and injured in their metric driven pursuit of health. I see so many who speed-read and box-tick their way to becoming ever more ignorant and confused. And I see so many who become deeply unhappy in their  data and logic led pursuit of happiness.

But their is hope. See, Bentham’s Panopticon was never built and our Bentham inspired world is only a prison in the softest sense. The tyranny of numbers is minimum security at best.

Like a vampire, metrics can only drain the life from you if you first invite them in to your life. Taking numbers for what they are, extracting the good from them and otherwise keeping them in their place is merely a decision.

And once you do this, once you are no longer tyrannised by numbers you will find that intuition, discernment and the appreciation of the intangible, the ephemeral and the beautiful will grow in their place.

And cultivating these will lead to more happiness than can be inputted into any spreadsheet or plotted on any graph.

Until next time,

Tom.


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Find me on the web at thomasjbevan.com, on Twitter @thomasjbevan1 , or by email at <tjb_writer@protonmail.com>.