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Life and society are increasingly governed by numbers (economist.com)
184 points by jkuria 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

I've been thinking a lot lately about this little old lady who lived in my neighborhood in Chicago. It was on this street lined with interesting old brownstones with cool little apartments. She lived in a garden level apartment (for those who don't know, this essentially means street level apartment) From what I understand she was a florist so she didn't make a ton of money and sometimes struggled to make ends meet but had been scraping by, renting the place for like 20 years. I'm not really much of a "flower" guy, but the flowers and plants she had on her little like 6 foot by 6 foot patio/stoop were fuckin awesome. Seems like she planted them so there was almost always something in bloom. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood had a flower pot or two out front, but hers were pretty impressive. I was fresh out of college and had been renting in the neighborhood for about 3 years before she passed away. After she was gone it was impossible not to notice that the new people who moved in had no plants. Over the next few years all of the buildings stopped putting flowers out on their stoops, the burnt out porch lights were no longer being changed, etc... I don't want to imply the neighborhood fell apart, it was a nice neighborhood, it was just that the neighborhood was noticeably less pretty, the details were missing. I'm totally aware that I'm making a leap here, but after talking to some neighbors, I truly believe her love for flowers and her beautiful little garden had a ripple effect, 2nd and 3rd order effects that none of us really understood until she was gone. That her little garden inspired other renters to add their own little piece to the neighborhood. I don't know how we measure and reward someone like her, how we measure someone who's little daily actions cause positive ripple effects, but fuck I really wish we knew how.

I think we'll always measure with numbers, be governed by numbers, but more and more I find myself hoping we get better at it--that we figure out better metrics by which to measure success and quality of life--to notice the ways things ripple out. Lately every time I hear someone degrading someone else because that person isn't rich enough or educated enough, her little garden pops into my head.

Just to be clear, I recognize that markets often do a good job of measuring certain things, but lately it feels like our current iteration of measurements, if we really wanted to, we could maybe make them better.

Some things shouldn't be measured, or be about any external validation. I'm sure that old lady wasn't doing it for recognition or reward, but just because she felt it the right thing to do. A sense of personal or civic pride if you like, or wanting to make her little bit of the world that bit nicer, for everyone.

It's something we mostly forgot. Parks and gardens are maintained at lowest, most efficient cost; businesses build the cheapest box building planning laws let them; people couldn't care less about much of anything beyond them and theirs. Everywhere you look things are that much more dull and uninteresting, or messy and rubbish strewn than they once were. I suspect it was an intended consequence of the Thatcher/Reagan years. It's certainly removed a lot of the humanity.

I can give no better example of striving to make the world a tiny bit better for no recognition or reward than this story from yesterday: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/feb/22/man-who-tend...

If you click through to the twitter threads that initiated this, you may end up with grit in your eyes. :)

I remember two stories on HN - one about a guy somewhere near NY, who is quietly digitizing tons of old newspapers. It is all available on his website for free. Another about a couple who are collecting seeds, I think.

Then there is this man who built a road by himself - https://www.thebetterindia.com/18326/the-man-who-moved-a-mou...

Yet, do these stories and the one above contradict the parent's Narrative around Reagan/Thatcher? They are examples of altruistic individualism- removing the "materialistic" part but not returning the "collectivist" part.

The difference, of course, is these sorts of things are now exceptional enough to be newsworthy. There will probably always be examples. For my parent's generation it was far more just the usual way of things as so many were involved.

Could you explain further what do you mean with one consequence being the Thatcher/Reagan years? Genuinely curious.

Erk, big question! The Reagan/US experience was different in the details, but broadly followed the same road and rationale. I'll cover the UK case as I live here. It's a huge topic, so I've probably summarised this poorly...

Thatcherism ushered in a widespread, total belief in materialistic individualism. Until the recession, anyway.

Not just the cliched Harry Enfield loadsamoney, or for US readers Gordon Gekko "greed is good" in Wall Street, and the rise of the yuppie, but the abolition of the majority of the post-war consensus. Thatcher herself seemed to have a genuine, but strange, belief that this would turn us all out like the little old lady mentioned in the GP. We'd have massive amounts of civic and social pride, whilst inhabiting a society where everything has been shaped around the individual alone, with competition for everything. Others in government were far more straightforward about the intended result.

Anything collective was bad. The welfare state, public housing, public ownership, public amenities were bad, as a matter of dogma. Even when they were good. That included tiny things like the council employing park keepers and gardeners, or big like providing enough public housing. You could buy your public housing, but the local council was not allowed to build a replacement or spend the proceeds on buying a replacement. Post-war, through the seventies, both political parties agreed, and even competed, to provide adequate public housing, public facilities, adequate regulation, an adequate safety net etc.

There was plenty wrong with the UK in the 70s, and some of the Thatcher changes were necessary. Just some. Unions were certainly overly powerful. Others, from the long term perspective have been remarkably damaging. It didn't have to be so brutal. It didn't have to go from safety net to now where we have a punitive, vindictive welfare system intended to punish and stigmatise. After 40 years of neoliberal policies to end state control and direction, local government is more centrally funded and controlled than it's ever been.

We ended up with individual insurance and pension schemes. Invest in the wrong scheme? Tough shit. The employer was divested of any responsibility to provide for their workers with a collective scheme. Not just pensions, but connections to the community, fair wages, wage differentials, job security. Billions in proceeds from oil or privatisations? Piss them away in tax cuts. Norway built a national investment scheme that's worth hundreds of thousands for each citizen. Collectivism is always bad.

As so often is the case, the right answer was somewhere between the two extremes.

Defined Benefit pension schemes were a terrible idea that only made sense when you assume the risk free rate will always be 10%.

Something more like the Australian model would be good, there are improvements that should be made, but in the end DC is the correct path forwards

Maybe the erosion of the safety net and the great disconnect between productivity increases and increases in wages?

People who were not independently wealthy are not able to afford to do anything with their time that doesn't earn them money. People are less able to take risks, more apt to settle for less so long as less is stable and safer.

There is also a chilling effect on communities as everyone scrambles to "get theirs" when these support systems have their legs kicked out from under them.

IMO of course.

Plenty has been written on the subject, but Bowling Alone is the usual introduction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_Alone

It was an explicit policy goal of both Reagan and Thatcher to destroy the power of organised labour, and along the way all sorts of small community activities got swept away. Working mens' clubs, bands, and so on. Providing beautiful flower views for the neighbourhood with no commercial motive is "socialism", or something like that.

Of course, it was never directly stated like that, and conservatives continue to occasionally extol voluntarism. But they don't practice it or celebrate its values among themselves. The people celebrated in the post-80s society are those who can take the most, not those who give the most.

There's also possibly a gendered component to this; the hidden army of little old ladies and stay-at-home mums who overwhelmingly organise "community" activities. The 80s made it a lot harder to be a non working parent, so the mums went out to work and the children were left with the grandmothers.

Let's not forget the famous, defining, Thatcher speech:

"I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation"..."There is no such thing as society." -- https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689

Given the chaos of the 70s, this argument had a strong point. However, the effect of saying the government no longer had an obligation to house people had the obvious effect:

"“Will the Prime Minister accept,” he demanded, “That, 10 years ago, in 1979, there were 2,750 households in temporary accommodation in London; that the current figure is over 25,000 and that a further 2,000 people are sleeping on the streets?" -- Jeremy Corbyn MP, May 8 1990.

That "over 25,000" figure is about 55k now.

>It's certainly removed a lot of the humanity

The reason we measure things is so people can't make assertions like this without some kind of evidence.

I think NeedMoreTea is pointing to the practice of looking at the numbers and optimizing as much profit as we can out of them, which tends to remove or not account for the human element. It's easy to do a quick glance of the balance sheet and see that the money and hours spent on gardening are a drain on the family budget. A similar thing can happen for government budgets. After all, you don't need flowers to survive, nor do you need many government programs to maintain a country.

Just look into the suicide rates stemming from Universal Credit and PIP, and the sheer number of incorrectly rejected claims. Or the growth of food banks and homelessness.

Homelessness is declining in the US:


and how would we know these rates are a meaninful deviation from whatever is normal, or indeed whatever normal is, if we shouldn’t quantify them?

Numbers aren't the problem per se. We don't tend to have great numbers for matters of the human heart. We can count the number of steps we took in the last day, but how do we count the wellbeing we imparted on those around us?

Something like 2 years ago, a friend of my flat mate came to visit from her home country. She is a very energic person and transmits happiness, we would be just having a drink and talking and suddenly she would get up and start dancing, no reasons needed, "I just feel like it".

We were talking avout drawing and I suggested her to draw something nice for us, told her that if she did I would proudly stick it on the outside part of our flat door so other neighbors could see it.

And boy did they love it. Not because the drawing was beautiful per se, but because of the good idea of bringing some colorful touches to a boring and standard common corridor. Also, most of my neighbors have kids, so they started making their own drawings and sticking them on their doors.

Fast forward to present day. Drawings change every so often, the children draw new pieces wishing Merry Christmas, or the arrival of the Spring. We at home also encourage our visitors to draw something, most are shy about it because "they don't know how to draw" without realizing the expectations are those of a 3-years old kid :-)

Such an inocuous idea has had a very positive impact on a very little aspect of our lives in this particular building. Also the first impressions from new people coming to the place are always fun to see.

We need less robotic-like number optimizations in our lifes, and more of the good-old "do as you feel like" (even if it's not optimum or maximizes some metric)

I suspect we are a fairly long way from measuring that. And even when we do manage to measure that positive ripple effect, do you want to?

The reality is, numbers are used for accounting. If we start keeping an accounting of small actions such as that, what freedom will we have?

People being mean, nice, depressed, etc. they are what make is human. By accounting for the little things we’d incentivize uniform behavior and lose all diversity of any kind.

I too think on those little things a lot. I recently had a family member move away, and since then every family get together is just flat in comparison. I think in a small way, those flowers did the same to the neighborhood.

Sometimes I think it’s enough to say, we lost something when they left. Or gained something when they were here. Maybe that’s enough of a quantified “number”.

> And even when we do manage to measure that positive ripple effect, do you want to?

> The reality is, numbers are used for accounting. If we start keeping an accounting of small actions such as that...

This is a really good point. I think your point fits well with a sibling comment to yours, Gibbon1 pointed out something called The McNamara Fallacy which says we often trick ourselves into believing that the most important things are those which we can measure quantitatively, that they must be more important if only because they are measurable.

I do still wish we were better - on a level above The Individual - at recognizing the ways we add value to one another's lives. I do feel like, on a societal and systems level we're missing out on a lot of the little ways we make each other's lives more colorful, the ripples or 2nd and 3rd order effects. Taken as a whole, all of these little value-adds, everything from the artist, a neighbor's little garden, to the guy on my team who writes hilariously snarky code comments, I think these things probably add-up and affect us more than we realize.

Maybe we need to be better at teaching from a young age to notice those little ripples? Anyway, thanks for your comment, it helped me see it differently.

It is a catch 22. think all I want as a technologist, indirectly the reason to measure to see that I am going in the right direction, hoping the products I build help people create more of above type of interactions between us. Years ago when I was reading about this, I have come to conclusion that these places are what Hakim Bey called "temporary autonomous zones" and I accept them as just experiences to be lived rather than quantified.

You seem to be hedging and I'm not sure why. Your core point is one that every good engineer should understand: not all important things can be practically measured. We've all watched metrics or standards defined with the best of intentions driven into the ground by a narrow-minded focus on the wrong numbers. Why should we be surprised that this is true in economics or politics or philosophy?

You have to remember, not everyone is an an engineer, let alone a good one. The point Toofy is trying to make is about society as general.

Your story reminds me of the McNamara Fallacy. Meaning it's a good example why the McNamara Fallacy is one.

One of my points is there is a lot of necessary and beneficial things people do that don't fit into being exploited via paid work.

Oh, thank you! I figured there had to be a name for this, I just had never heard it before, thanks!

Reading your excellent comment I remembered this comment from a few days ago :


Increasingly I think that there are many things that measurement simply doesn't apply to. That our industrial and post industrial society has conditioned us to believe that the applicability of statistics to complex but still mass produced items can be extended to humans and social situations in a simple way.

But actually, it can't. Humans are all very different, calculus's of human affairs must deal with penalty functions full of infinities of loss.

There is no need to defend markets. There are lot of factors that contribute to wholesome life that have nothing to do with money and status.

Just recognising this does not mean you are "anti-market".

Thank you for your beautiful story that highlights this!

> I don't know how we measure and reward someone like her, how we measure someone who's little daily actions cause positive ripple effects, but fuck I really wish we knew how.

We do know how. It's called civic engagement. We try to teach it to our children in organizations like the Boy / Girl Scouts, which gamify personal development and social contribution in the form of badges. As adults, civic engagement is driven by communal recognition and appreciation, in the form of honorary plaques presented at fund-raising banquets in front of friends and neighbors. But this has been in decline, for two underlying reasons.

The first and biggest reason is the breakdown of community and communal institutions. In rural areas, communal institutions have been squeezed by population decline, as people have left for cities in search of economic opportunity. People working multiple jobs to make ends meet don't have the time or energy to volunteer in their communities. In cities, the failure of municipal planners to put enough housing on the market for people to buy affordable apartments has driven people into the rental market, which prevents people from putting down roots and committing to their communities. If you look at the Bay Area, most 20-somethings look around and know in the back of their minds that they are going to need to move away to start a family. Why would you put your heart and soul into an urban garden if you're not going to be around to enjoy the fruits of your labors?

The second reason is a fearful overreaction. Civic engagement is a spectrum, and on the extreme end you find nativism and xenophobia. The social stability required to promote civic engagement means that such civically-minded organizations tend to be led by socially conservative people, and if left unchecked, these organizations can be unwelcoming. But there's no reason why civic volunteering needs to be socially conservative, and indeed, civic volunteering is made better when it's more welcoming and inclusive. Unfortunately, many people have knee-jerk reactions and throw out the baby with the bathwater, and reject these kinds of organizations on principle, but many such people would be put at ease by strong community leadership that fostered an inclusive environment for them.

Ultimately, it takes strong community leaders to give civic expression room to take root, grow, and stay inclusive over time. So the real question isn't how can we promote civic engagement - it's why don't we have strong local leadership?

Speaking of knee-jerk, you should note social conservatives tend to be the bedrock of organisations for a reason. While I love a good ol bashing of yesterdays politics, placing blame on people who think differently to you is the exact thing you are complaining about.

This is hands down the most sensible thing I've read in 10+ years of HN. Thank you for sharing your story.

You don’t need to capture such things with numbers. What’s needed is neighborly love... if you see her struggling (financially, physically, emotionally, etc), then help her and encourage the other neighbors to do so as well. Let her know she’s appreciated. Encourage each other.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” — Nelson Henderson

I think this one aspect of what the Chinese are trying to build with their social credit system. Not to say this is a good idea, I think there is no way to implement something like this fairly, but I know they give social score for neighborhood improvements under some narrowly defined criteria.

Given extensive enough monitoring and ML wouldn't it be possible to monitor the emotions of the citizens in a neighborhood and reward people who positively impact their neighbors?

No, because you get what you measure. If there are concrete rewards attached, people will immediately try to game the system. You can ameliorate this somewhat by being careful what you measure, but you'll still wind up with a metrics-driven tick-the-boxes response rather than an organic result driven by individual human motivations.

Have you watched Black Mirror?

Really well written. Thank you for sharing.

It probably has less to do with markets than the university training city planner types get.

To the extent this is a real phenomenon, it's because of competition and not measurement. Competitions that are judged qualitatively have the same effects, and measurements without competition (e.g. measuring the height and weight of babies) don't result in power accruing to the folks doing the measuring.

That said, people systematically overvalue anything with numbers attached due not understanding the epistemology of measurement and statistics. That's why managers at software companies are obsessed with pointing tickets, why scientists are obsessed with p-values, why the school system is obsessed with grades, etc. So if you want people to compete more fiercely over something, coming up with some numbers is a good way to make that happen. (At least for a while.)

It'd be nice to believe that this is just a temporary quirk of our current cultural values. But we may also have just topped out, at least for the foreseeable future, in terms of just how well people can really understand the world given a relatively fixed level of intelligence. Even though individuals are ostensibly becoming more transmodernist, it's difficult (as a layperson) to see how that or something like it could ever really could become the dominant philosophical paradigm behind our institutions.

Yes but don't too readily dismiss the notion that he who is tabulating will eventually tabulate into his own favor. Of course, this notion holds no water when looked at from a bureaucratic point of person but if we look at how BANKS are doing we might start wondering if this "overdraft fee" is really a beneficial thing for all or some. To use one concrete example for this camp.

Fair enough, and to the extent that the zeitgeist is sort of retroactively determined by whatever technological and political things are going on at the time, I wonder what new beliefs people will have about the state of the world in 50 or 100 years as the result of DLT.

On the surface the ability of banks to steal from folks seems like largely a different type of power than what the economist is talking about, which is the ability of metrics (and the people who define them) to shape human behavior. But maybe it just looks that way because it's difficult or impossible to really perceive the full extent of how living in a non-DLT world is affecting our behavior.

> But maybe it just looks that way because it's difficult or impossible to really perceive the full extent of how living in a non-DLT world is affecting our behavior.

We don't live in a 'non-DLT world though, DLT exists in this world right?

Sorry I agreed with your previous comment and then the mention of DLT lost me so I'm trying to understand the context I'm missing.

(Edit: spelling)

It exists as an idea, but we're still in the irruption phase and are decades from maturity. So it hasn't yet had much of a transformative effect on existing institutions, behaviors, relationships, etc.

For the uninitiated, what might Epistemology of Measurement and Statistics 101 look like?

Everyone should know three things: 1. You can measure anything 2. Measurements always have error 3. Measures aren't always aligned to what they are trying to measure, so even validated measures need critical thinking based on qualitative experience.

We're doing a very dangerous thing here. We're crossing the line between computers computing, and computers advising. When a computer computes, you can be assured the answer is correct. When a computer advises, the average person takes that information at the same value. There's a long laundry list of reasons why this is horrible. I went over a few in my essay about platforms being the enemy. http://tiny-giant-books.com/Entry2.html?EntryId=recEUbufzhAv...

There's a deeper moral/ethical issue at stake here. If you program a computer, you are responsible for that computer never presenting a misleading view of reality to the user. People don't distinguish between their tax program, GPS, and voting on reddit. When you use the interface to guide or subtly mislead people? You're hurting millions of people just a tiny bit at a time.

So many net-level effects involve these tiny changes that are impossible to evaluate. That delays or completely obfuscates the feedback loop. Very bad stuff here.

I have always, falsely, taken it for granted this is common knowledge.

The fact that everything is quantified doesn't necessarily remove bias from the forthcoming decisions. Instead it provides additional fuel to hone and precision tune that bias for maximum manipulation. This occurs even unintentionally. The safety check to reduce bias is to ensure the quantified data is available to a wide number of stakeholders and open to scrutiny.

is there not some formal "rule of thumb" describing that attempts to improve a system through "point based" incentives ultimately lead to undesirable outcomes as the incentives naively skew focus away from the starting goal of improving the system to simply gaming the point structure?

what I wrote feels hard to put cleanly into words, but does that makes any sense to anyone else?

As well as Goodhart, there's also "People with targets and jobs dependent upon meeting them will probably meet the targets - even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it." W. Edwards Deming

As seen everywhere including in hospital care outcomes, waiting lists and school standards.

Goodhart‘s Law - „When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure“


Good question! Goodhart’s Law fits this quite well. :)

From Wikipedia: “Goodhart's law is an adage named after economist Charles Goodhart, which has been phrased by Marilyn Strathern as "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." [0]

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart's_law

Yeah, but read his actual papers. Goodhart doesn't actually advocate against using measures. He just shows how measures can be corrupted and presents suggestions on avoiding this

Reading the thread there is a lot of pessimism in regards to whether measuring could ever be a positive and "life-giving" (in the sense of that flower story).

I'd like to argue that yes it can be just that, there's two reasons why I think so. First is Christopher Alexander and his work on wholeness.

Second is that I think the fundamental problem with our economic measurements is the "single source of truth" problem. When there is a just a single entity / stakeholder that prints currency and thereby defines baseline value then all the economic actors have less power to affect the definition of value. The development I'd like to see is democratization of stocks, making them the currencies of day to day life, and the phasing out of national currencies.

I haven't figure out yet exactly how to implement the intricacies of such a system but the general idea is that we need economic systems to acknowledge relativity in value better and stop hoping for a concrete truth to base our reality on.

... That economists get to pretend matter, while ignoring all the numbers that they can't measure and will kill us.

Economics on its own can't measure the impact of unknowns like global warming impact. It just gives the tools to the rich and elite and corporations to resist paying for it and dealing with it for as long as possible.

Everything is NOT QUANTIFIED. The theory of computation, physics, math, the uncertainty principle, and chaos GUARANTEE we do not have accurate quantification.

What does exist is bullshit quantification in favor of the powers that be that fund the studies and think tanks to justify their existence and political desires.

Yet another example of gross overreach of the pseudoscience of Economics.

This could also be phrased '[...] are increasingly reduced to numbers', in order to be rationalized by algorithms. How much wealth is counted multiple times by multiple models all recognizing the same qualities under different enumeration schemes?

I expect to see more and more references to Goodhart's Law as this increasing bias in favor of numerically digestible value amplifies the (often unacknowledged) premise that 'that which cannot be counted, doesn't count'

Company performance reviews, apart from their asymmetry (managers rate employees but employees can't rate their managers), assume you can sum an entire person up with a set of say 6 5-star ratings in a little table.

Think of all the characteristics of a person that aren't captured in that little 6x5 table.

> Our main way of relating ourselves to others is like things relate themselves to things on the market. We want to exchange our own personality, or as one says sometimes, our "personality package", for something. Now, this is not so true for the manual workers. The manual worker does not have to sell his personality. He doesn't have to sell his smile. But what you might call the "symbolpushers" , that is to say, all the people who deal with figures, with paper, with men, who manipulate - to use a better, or nicer, word - manipulate men and signs and words, all those today have not only to sell their service but in the bargain they're to sell their personality, more or less. There are exceptions.

-- Erich Fromm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cu-7UDT0Xe4&t=1m34s

> What is finished... is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of you out there that's finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods... Well, the time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word. Because good or bad, that's what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid - creatures that look human but aren't. The whole world not just us. We're just the most advanced country, so we're getting there first. The whole world's people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things.

-- "Network"

I don't think that's hyperbole, minus the futilism. If we reduce everything to "what can be objectively measured", we remove humans. In some way or another, sooner or later, either completely or as a form of soft lobotomy that begins at birth and never lets up.. just weighing things that can be measured slightly more, just keeping to erode everything else little by little.

> Humans, in so far as they are more than a completion of functions able to react, whose lowest and therefore most central reactions are the purely animal like ones, are simply superfluous for totalitarian systems. Their goal is not to erect a despotic regime over humans, but a system by which humans are made superfluous. Total power can only be achieved and guaranteed when nothing else matters except the absolutely controllable willingness to react, marionettes robbed of all spontaneity. Humans, precisely because they are so powerful, can only be completely controlled when they have become examples of the animal like species human.

-- Hannah Arendt

Insofar as we ignore everything we can't measure or somehow use to immediately "score", and therefore don't nurture it nor pass it on, it gets removed from the palette future generations have available. We can reduce humans to next to nothing in generations by simply not passing on things. The really devilish part is that the feedback is so delayed, and inflicted on people who have very little hope of connecting it with the lack of something they don't know.

I know this probably sounds like "tinfoil" stuff but personally I'm convinced we're doing this to ourselves, we're sleepwalking into it. Nobody is winning -- even being at the top of this compost heap of humanoids would not be as desirable as being a poor person in a somewhat decent society of humans. But with the comparison being in the memory hole, the only comparison will be people lower on the totem pole of humanoid society, so the obvious response to keep basically push even more in what I would call the wrong direction.

> Es ist typisch für die entmutigende Oberflächlichkeit des heutigen Denkens, daß das Wort "Größe", das eine Quantität und nicht eine Qualität bezeichnet, als ein Ausdruck der Anerkennung, wie zum Beispiel "Schönheit", "Güte", "Weisheit" verwendet wird. Was heute groß ist, wird also fast automatisch als schön und gut angesehen.

-- Sebastian Haffner

> It is typical for the discouraging superficiality of todays thinking that the word "greatness", which describes a quantity and not a quality, is used as an expression of appreciation, like for example "beauty", "kindness", "wisdom". Nowadays, what is big is nearly automatically considered beautiful and good.

Power accrues to whoever has power. That's the primary use of power.

If true, this makes power rather pointless.


Imagine a form of money that can only be used to buy more of that money, not any goods or services.

Power is happening naturally, it is our ability to harness it that is deft or dull.

Since the rest is behind a paywall, just for fun let's deconstruct that intro paragraph!

> MEASUREMENTS PERVADE life and society.

Some parts of it, sure. And much more in some parts of the world than others.

> Infants are weighed the moment they blink into the world.

That practice is probably thousands of years old, because it is a good indicator of the health of both baby and mother.

> Pupils are graded.

Hundreds of years old, because if you want a standardized school system you have to at least seem to judge pupils by their merits in vaguely similar ways across a very diverse set of schools and educators.

> Schools are judged on their students’ performance, universities on graduates’ job prospects.

And this is where it starts falling down. Schools and universities in places with problems are funded so disparately that they are no longer standardized in practice, so stop-gap measures like these rear their ugly head.

> Companies monitor the productivity of employees

And studies have shown that measuring productivity is bad for morale and productivity, while being easy to game.

> while CEOs watch the share price.

... leading to short term thinking because human intuition is not very good at statistics.

> Countries tabulate their GDP,

Which seems to have been discredited.

> credit-rating agencies assess their economies,

Well, I'm just glad I've never had to live in a place where those are actually a thing.

> investors eye bond yields.

Very wisely.

> The modern world relies on such data. It would cease to function without them.

By this token most of the world has already ceased to function.

The subtitle, on the other hand, seems right on the money. Being someone who decides what to measure is a position of great power and responsibility, and I sincerely hope we get better at measuring the right thing, not measuring at all when it would do more harm than good, and knowing which to choose.

>Hundreds of years old, because if you want a standardized school system you have to at least seem to judge pupils by their merits in vaguely similar ways across a very diverse set of schools and educators. We can't know beforehand what is the right way to teach (or what one should learn). Only time can show. Imposing control over education makes everyone live by the same mediocre standards; you reduce dimensionality to just one scale from number A to number B and you cut out the randomness. At the end you get the same situation as in every field where you impose any sort of metrics: teachers and students just try to game them. >Being someone who decides what to measure is a position of great power and responsibility Humanity had whole 20th century to see how central planning works. One man or thousand can't do the job better for a multimillion society that each individual or groups of individuals can do themselves. Indeed it's a position of great power and it attracts corresponding type of people whom one should keep away from decisions that would affect millions. Whether they want to use with good will or malicious. >and I sincerely hope we get better at measuring the right thing, not measuring at all when it would do more harm than good, and knowing which to choose. That's sort of a fallacy. Using a broken or completely irrelevant instrument is not a good alternative to not having an instrument at all. Again, by imposing metrics on extremely complex things you reduce the number of dimensions (from infinite to calculable). It makes it look like it's under control, but that's just a self-delusion. At best it does not help at all, at worst it eventually produces a crisis.

Great post, though I disagree with GDP being discredited.

GDP is the output of an economy, specificly defined. It isn't well-being, or some measure of how great a country is. It has a use for comparing countries in certain contexts. Nothing more, nothing less.

I'm frankly surpsied at the number of posters coming out against "measurement" on a board that claims to be science and engineering oriented.

> Since the rest is behind a paywall, just for fun let's deconstruct that intro paragraph!

If you're interested in reading past the intro, https://outline.com/bXUSAW should help.

In other words, datasets.

>When these technologies become embedded in society, he argues, life is reduced to checkboxes.

This idea is part of why I think it's so crucial to teach the humanities to all people, especially those in STEM fields where the humanities are lacking at best and received as hostile at worst. I firmly believe most of what it means to be a human is not quantifiable and we lose a tremendous amount of meaning in our lives when we're literally reduced to "going through the motions": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therblig

>I firmly believe most of what it means to be a human is not quantifiable

This is a tired argument, especially because it itself is taking the first step towards quantifying what it is saying can't be quantified. First you have Boolean categories ("what it means to be human," and "what it doesn't mean to be human"), and later on you refine them into more subtle models, models which sometimes use real numbers to express their parameters. Even by suggesting that "what it means to be human" is a coherent category into which things can fall, you are already on the road to quantifying it.

The fact that you're reducing my comment to mere categorization kind of proves my point. "What it means to be human" is not a category of activity, it's an ongoing process that we create through living in a world with other people and finding meaning in our interactions with our predecessors (e.g. examining ancient art or living with the insufficiencies of a building that was built centuries ago), our peers in the present, and our considerations for those that come after us in the future.

A number is the process of selecting a point out of infinite possibilities on a number line. Life is the process of selecting things out of not quite infinite possibilities but unimaginably large. These things are similar when you look at them like this, and numbers are richer than the real world, because they aren't finite.

While I think you have an excellent point, I believe what most people mean when they say “not quantifiable” is “not fully quantifiable” as opposed to “completely indescribable”. I think this phrase reflects acceptance of the underlying principle behind Gödel’s Incompleteness and the Halting Problem.

>I believe what most people mean when they say “not quantifiable” is “not fully quantifiable” as opposed to “completely indescribable”.

Describing something and quantifying it are not distinct actions. If you think you can make any progress at all in describing something, then you are doing the same thing as those enigmatic "quantifiers." The only reason it seems different to say "this apple is red," versus "this apple weighs a half pound" is because people are a lot more handy with colors than fractions.

Quantifying requires numbers, while description does not. I find your comment lacking (description), but I don't have a meaningful numeric value handy for how much so (quantification).

>Quantifying requires numbers, while description does not.

That statement is equivalent to, "Uantifying requires words that start with U, while in complete contrast Wuantifying requires words that start with W." Granted I should have said, "not meaningfully distinct," but the point is that the only reason there appears to be a boundary between Uantifying and Wuantifying is because there is one group of people that know a lot of W-words and almost no U-words, and another group of people that know almost no W-words but many U-words. Each group thinks they see a "material" boundary while in reality the only distinguishing line is edge of their own familiarity.

I think a lot of the problem is education. Without education a lot of these ideas wouldn't occur.

And UI design?


Could you explain how art is used to inflict depravity?

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