“And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.”

Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath


“A constant focus on trying to find ways to trick users into engaging with products rather than giving them a reason to.”

Ed Zitron


I certainly have a dubious relationship with measurement. I tend to believe business measures more out of fear than anything else. That said. Not measuring anything is stupid. But today I am just talking about how measurement shapes society and how society goes about things and the danger to all of us being measured.

What do I mean?

This leads me, first, to discuss how measurement shapes awareness.

Society is strewn with perception-driven hues. The problem with that is we, the people, are increasingly embracing an increasingly finite view of everything. It was William Blake who said “if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees thro’ narrow chinks in his cavern.” Measurement narrows our sense gating channels that we naturally have so that our perceptions reflect a very small part of the world around us. This is where measurement comes into the picture. We tend to focus in on the small world necessary to achieve whatever particular measurement drives our awareness or drives something important to us. Yes. I am saying that measurement actually creates limitations. Basically, measurement can make a closed system of a naturally open system. Kind of a bounded rationality to bound awareness.

Measurement doesn’t allow the natural leaking of humanness <unpredictable & irrational that leads to innovation and improvements and learning> in that upsets the dream of symmetry, linear and expected. The truth is that this predictability is doomed to fail and there is an inevitable disruption to conventional wisdom if not the status quo in totality. Yeah. The measurement disrupts measurement. Despite the fact conventional approaches within a measured system, most often based on the linear analysis of cause and effect of ‘best practices’, will always fail and, yet, society continues to demand simplistic, more measurable, linear answers and solutions. Rather than embracing the unpredictability of a complex world and positively expecting continuous transformation <in a wide span of change or evolving process> society gets more and more anxious as symmetry is not only attacked, but broken. My point here is that not only is society’s awareness diminishing, but its desire for measurement is encouraging an overall “awareness objective blindness” shaping an increasingly fragile view of life and the world.

Which leads me to the second point that measurement actually shapes reality.

Counting makes things visible and visible things always count. What this eliminates is the fact that every new object clearly seen opens up new versions of perception to us. Instead, measurement is how continuity is built into the system which guides society. This also suggests the invisible really isn’t important. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that money is easily counted therefore money becomes the measure of all things but that is a different piece for a different day.

Measurement is inevitably crafted from history, for a future outcome, and history has an incredibly solid structure of which one component is memory. Institutional misguided purposes may reign, ineffective leadership may encourage chaos, but measurement withstands the all that attempts to destroy the historical structural arc. My point here is that ‘power’ <institutions and people in control> know this and use measurement for the purposes of controlling society/people. Just ponder how this idea trickles down to the existing realities in education, entertainment, sports, social media, business and even communities. For every angst people have about a society gone awry there is very likely a measurement behind it.

Which leads me back to how measurement can hollow out humanity as it shapes humans. Measurement and its methodology, and its cousin methodology, has become a mercenary for hire within society. What measurement also does is dehumanize outcomes and output. What I mean by that is while humans have an impact on what is actually measured, they appear to have little accountability for the impact of their actions in attaining that measurement. Measurements logic is simply the measurement itself. What is astonishing about our measurement systems is how little personal decency or ethics plays a role in the reasoning of measurement. Simply, measurement shapes outcomes not decency. In fact, measurement is detached from the “how” of the objective to be attained. In this measurement world creation may demand an architect or a professor or anyone with an obsession to the detail needed to accumulate what will be measured, but who that architect or professor actually is from an ethical perspective is significantly less important. This society will inevitably find experts in measurement, not experts in morality because the measurement itself IS the logic and reason. And while what I just shared may appear to harsh a critique, at minimum, measurement invariably rewards outcomes over any real common sense or even offers a head nod to proportional application of individual morality or even substantive meaning <the outcome is expected to make workers feel meaning>. In other words, to a point I will come back to later, there is a general lack of value of content over outcome.

The impact on the individual is captured in this thought from Robert Bly: “A person suffers if he or she is constantly being forced into the statistical mentality and away from the road of feeling.

This is what a measurement society shapes. Suffering forced into a constrained mentality to meet a specific task rather than feeling for the opportunity and possibilities of emergence.

What this means is that it does not really matter whether some technology or ‘thing’ – project, initiative, task – preserves something or destroys something in order to meet a measurement. The measurement is the justification.

Which leads me to how measurement encourages us to ignore ‘content’ in the pursuit of what is measured.

While what should matter is what it is observed to do, what it creates or destroys in order to achieve something, the reality is society cares almost exclusively on the measurement objective. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a society not wary of promises made to us by the designers or the ones with the material interest in the measurements is doomed to embrace a number of measures, and measurements, that will send us more and more paths hollow of moral and ethical behavior in our pursuit of ‘measurement success.’

The essence of learning whether human, machine or technology is developing the ability to detect, recognize and eventually reproduce patterns – not measurements. The outcomes are an outcome of the patterns. The patterns are important because they are the ‘content’ from which possibilities arise. Measurements minimizes possibilities while patterns offer trampolines for possibilities. This is especially true as systems in which society thrive become more and more complex and more and more interconnected where finite measurement may simultaneously encourage short term success AND failure as in the measured goal is reached at the expense of society’s benefit. Ponder that a bit. If society embraced ‘the content’ and sought out patterns, inevitably people, and networks of people, would stop seeking to meet specific measurements, but rather seek to optimize moments and situations within a construct of a grander positive vision. It is through this vision that the individual activity actually acquires the ability to optimize the gradients of optimal behavior/actions/morality to progress in value creation (for the task or for the organization/business or for society) which may, or may not, meet some specific measurement.

“The purpose of a system is what it does.”

Stafford Beer

Which leads me to the larger crisis of how measurement has infiltrated society.

A measurement crisis occurs when society loses touch with reality, and society, because it has institutionalized a systematically distorted measurement infrastructure. The measuring, as a focus, absolves people of morality and humanity. Regardless of the need for deep structural transformation the reality is measurement ricochets between the system, people’s lives business, social reality and society. All of this measurement tends to address the process of production or service delivery thereby reducing standards for the procedures and practices of business/everything by establishing norms for their social patterns through numbers and measurement and even identifying structure. Quality of actions and behaviors arc toward standardization and measurement of process and not the content. This spawns a society built around obsessive data gathering and metrics which are then used to objectively measure what is called quality and ensure it is being delivered. This is simply a race to mediocrity from not only a process standpoint but also a hollowing out of human, and humanity, substantiveness. This does doesn’t mean measurement has doesn’t have value just that measurement can be structural cages <built by people in power seeking to maintain power over>. The reality is measurements are, fundamentally, structures. Measurement practices enact realities. They serve as lenses and function to represent aspects of the world in order to garner some consensus and thereby shaping individual and collective perceptions of reality. They can also function as technologies and tools to enable the construction of new realities – either functionally or socially. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that measurement is intrinsically related to power and control. Those who have the power to create and institutionalize measures and standards control the culture the behaviors and, overall, society. This is in part because standards and measures are unavoidably normative. They say how things ought to be how practices and products and people should look and behave. This means as a consequence instituting measurement is an act of power because doing so means exercising control over people and things. The truth is people humans are controlled through measures and standards. Generally speaking, we like them. Not only do they help us understand our perceptions of reality but they also help us reflect in terms of our endeavors and their value or maybe what is valued by the system itself. Which leads me to measurement induces reflection. We see ourselves through our measures and standards. We are what we measure. The danger in this is when measurement encourages society to lose touch with reality because it is institutionalized a systematically distorted measurement infrastructure. What I mean by that is measurement becomes addictive to those seeking power, and control, and mathematics – the foundation of any measurement – divorces behavior from the questions of morality and integrity which SHOULD be the at the core of the justification for any behavior – measurable or not. measurement simply becomes the guardian of bad ideas and bad behavior. Measurement simply creates a certain voraciousness without thought.


“…the holy men sat in an atmosphere reeking of antiquity, so thick with the dust of ages that you can’t see through it–nor can they.”

Gertrude Bell

This means societies, or maybe more distressingly, people with ideologies, intoxicated by a particular theory of how things should be will usually spawn a system of false measures. They will use measurement to trick people into not only doing things but actually believing that is what ‘reality’ is supposed to be. Measurement instruments and techniques will be built that appear to deal in realities, but instead deal and what is wished for and desired by the institution <or people in power> itself thereby simply becoming control mechanisms. The measurements are used as truncated representations of the complex dynamic world so that people can take them as sufficient understanding of reality when they are in fact insufficient and often misleading. This is worse than flying blind. It is flying blind when you think you are seeing clearly. In harsh terms this suggests designing people through the engineering or building of behavior and mindsets – through measurement. It suggests that the growth processes of individuals, functionally and psychologically, and society in totality, as things of manipulation to be worked on and shaped just as you would the needs and the objectives of a business.

Harshly, this treats society under the guise of “if you do not measure it, you cannot monetize it and if you cannot monetize something then you cannot technically see if an economic investment has worked.” This summarizes the main problem facing, well, everything with regard to investment in anything <including humans and humanity> that everything is required demonstrate that money is well spent.

“Man is a rationalizing animal not a rational one.”

Robert Heinlein

Which leads me to why measurement is so appealing.

It constrains time into a finitely recognizable space. Or maybe differently said it creates a finite space into which we can cram recognizable things. Yes. It’s a comfort zone.

So, yes, time is now a space. Technology, through digital destruction of normal physical presence means that culture is now organized temporally. Social media feeds’ transition from chronological to algorithmic sorting was a manipulation of time and relevance, now primarily determined by someone else, is now the main criteria for occupying valuable real estate in your attention field. And while recency, the freshest information gets priority, plays a role this is where measurement steps in. All information, however significant, must eventually be pushed aside to make room for the new but measurement actually defines significance <even if it is not significant>. This means we tend to jump onto the first informational life raft that can contribute to attaining the measurement objective when feel like we are we drowning in all this information <which is almost all the time>. Technology, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, was an extension of the body. But the corollary is that the body can only extend so far and technology can also demand the amputation of something, in this case, several functions – mental as well as tasks – simply to survive in this environment or, as a corollary, to thrive in whatever measurement zone that exists.

This doesn’t mean we, as individuals, cannot control the rearrangement of functions, but we would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t note the rearrangement arises from the environment/context itself all driven by some measurement we have agreed to. I say this because typical measurement in society actually constrains the ability to rearrange despite whatever ‘instructions’ the environment may provide.

Which leads me to end with the point remains that not only does measurement shape society, but there will be people who actively seek to construct that shaping.

To be clear. There is no political message lurking in that sentence. Societal signals are apolitical and non-ideological therefore measurements are more about simply managing awareness and shaping reality based on, mostly, whatever warped view we may have on what is needed for, or what we perceive is the best for, the future <all based on a very finite view as noted at the beginning of this piece>.

Our society is so deeply shaped by metrics we actually have begun not only navigating everything by measurement, but defining success by the metrics, i.e., we signal and then measure against that signal. The most likes, the most sales, the most growth, the most things, the most followed, all define how we score each other as well as what we do. I would also note that not only do they shape, but they help define the pace and cadence of how we navigate life. Metrics can speed up, slow down, and simplify not only decisions, but decision-making — all of which are the building blocks for shaping society. The metrics create the definitions for all of this and definitions are simple yet central reflections of society so, yes, measurements are de facto definitions. And in this danger lurks. Measurements, just as designed systems tend to be, are constructed from an assumption of correctness. They are built backwards from this assumption. The danger lurks within the fact that the structure, whatever it may be, to meet the measurement goals is unable to assimilate any anomalies or emergent aspects, no matter how positive they could contribute towards an unmeasured success, because they would not assist in reaching the measurement objective. Yeah. This also means that imagination is sacrificed at the altar of a solid stone construct of measurement.

We use ranking and scores to orient ourselves, but performance metrics are also a filter through which we experience the world and our position within it. They are a measuring stick that we use to evaluate and judge ourselves and others. To be clear. We are doing this not because we, society, is stupid but rather more out of survival instincts. Almost everyone perceives the world becoming more and more complex and uncertain therefore our natural tendency is to embrace measurements as they encourage a perception of some level of certainty. They are grips to hold onto. The danger is that much of that measurement is not only ‘future flawed’ <not a particularly useful contributor to a better future>, but superficial therefore the meaning we give to the world is filtered through a massive measured popularity contest in which everyone participates, but the prize is unclear. Ponder because we are the ones being measured and there is someone deciding what should be measured and not all measurement will shape the society we want.

Written by Bruce