December 5, 2023

Shortcuts: In a Data-Heavy Society, Being Defined by the Numbers

I HAVE a confession to make. I started using Twitter about six months ago and eagerly watched my “followers” rise — 20 to 30 to 40. I made it to 60 and suddenly plateaued — a few would follow and then (heartbreak) “unfollow.”

At one point, I signed up my sons, who didn’t even use Twitter, to follow me. While part of me was laughing at myself — how senseless was this? — I also took some pleasure in seeing my numbers rise.

Numbers and rankings are everywhere. And I’m not just talking about Twitter followers and Facebook friends. In the journalism world, there’s how many people “like” an article or blog. How many retweeted or e-mailed it? I’ll know, for example, if this column made the “most e-mailed” of the business section. Or of the entire paper. And however briefly, it will matter to me.

Offline, too, we are turning more and more to numbers and rankings. We use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and students. The polling companies have already begun to tell us who’s up and who’s down in the 2012 presidential election. Companies have credit ratings. We have credit scores.

And although most people acknowledge that there are a million different ways to judge colleges and universities, the annual rankings by U.S. News World Report of institutions of higher education have gained almost biblical importance.

“Numbers make intangibles tangible,” said Jonah Lehrer, a journalist and author of “How We Decide,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). “They give the illusion of control.”

Too many people shopping for cars, for example, get fixated on how much horsepower the engine has, even though in most cases it really doesn’t matter, Mr. Lehrer said.

“We want to quantify everything,” he went on, “to ground a decision in fact, instead of asking whether that variable matters.”

Even before we could measure — and flaunt — numbers online, some had long been a reference point. Consider the many years that fans have meticulously followed baseball statistics.

And we often do need to find ways to measure and evaluate people and products in as objective a way as possible.

The trouble, though, is when we mindlessly and blindly rely on those numbers to tell us everything, said Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on Technology and Self.

Numbers become not just part of the way we judge and assess, but the only way.

“One of the fantasies of numerical ranking is that you know how you got there,” said Professor Turkle, who is the author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” (Basic Books, 2011). “But the problem is if the numbers are arrived at in an irrational way, or black-boxed, so we don’t understand how we got there, then what use are they?”

My colleague Michael Winerip recently wrote an article about an excellent and exceptionally dedicated middle-school teacher, with terrific performance evaluations. But a formula used by the New York Department of Education put the teacher in the seventh percentile of her teaching peers.

That formula used 32 variables plugged into a statistical model that “appears transparent, but is clear as mud,” Mr. Winerip wrote.

And even if we understand the numbers — something as apparently clear-cut as how many books an author sells — they aren’t always helpful.

Robin Black, author of the short story collection, “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This,” (Random House, 2010) wrote a blog post on how fretting about the different ways to measure her book’s success has overshadowed why she wrote it in the first place.

“I go to a place where everything has a number,” Ms. Black told me. “How many advance copies, how many reviews, how many sales.”

Amazon recently made it possible for authors to check how many books they’ve sold and, using interactive maps, it even zeroes in on how many sales occurred in which cities.

“Twenty years ago, maybe every Sunday you looked at The New York Times best-seller list,” she said. “Now you can torture yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It becomes an exercise in scab-picking.”

And those black-and-white statistics, while arguably irrefutable in one way, really tell us almost nothing. Amazon’s rankings of book sales, for instance — which anyone can view — can vary wildly based on the sale of very few books.

All those numbers help us lose sight of why we’re really doing what we’re doing. Ms. Black, for instance, said her books were largely about loss.

“I’ll get a letter from someone who says, ‘My daughter died, and reading your book really helped,’ ” Ms. Black said. “That’s so meaningful. How do I measure that against 500 Twitter followers?”

Eric Frankel is founder of a company called 10 Minutes to Change, which works on human resources strategies and talent management, which means figuring out how to improve workers’ performance.


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