I had a long chat with my elder son the other day. It’s fairly unusual for us to chew the fat, even though we share a house. I’m in when he’s out, and vice versa.
But the other day, over dinner, we covered the ground. There was the usual stuff: the lamentable state of our respective sports teams, domestic politics, the cost of living. That sort of thing.
We also chatted about his job. And I was startled. His entire focus was on his Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. He’s a white-collar professional. His role doesn’t involve working in a warehouse or delivering goods.
He’s done both of those as vacation jobs – and has a healthy respect for those who do – but I’d assumed that he’d escaped the world of monitored restroom breaks and endless quotas.
OK, so his current employers are human. They don’t have the stopwatch on him when he takes a comfort break. But he still exists in a world where every aspect of his productivity is measured.
I have it easy. Write article, hit deadline, move on. I’ve got goals, sure, but they aren’t relentlessly measured. So I was concerned for him.
Measurement Defines the World We Live in
Measurement is all around us. That’s particularly apparent to digital natives, like my son. There’s a metric for everything, from sales success to personal fitness. And don’t get me started on sports.
But all this is nothing new. Measurement is something seemingly inherently human. We are the quantifying animal – and have been since someone carved tally marks on a wolf’s jawbone back in the Stone Age.
Measurement underpins our attempts to impose order and understanding on the world. All that’s fundamentally changed is the technology.
And as James Vincent points out in his book “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement,” measurement has had a checkered history.
Measurement and Civilization
In Ancient Egypt, people believed you could measure the physical weight of a human soul. More practically, they built great chambers to measure the flooding depth of the River Nile. They’re called nilometers. (Well, what else would you call them?)
These structures allowed Egyptian officials to gauge the likely depth of the Nile’s flooding, and hence the fertility of next year’s soil. Pretty vital if you needed to know how much food there’d be to go around.
Also handy for predicting things like civil unrest because people were hungry. In any case, measurement had already become an essential tool for civilized government.
Fairness for All?
As societies developed, measurement came to embody new ideas and principles. The French Revolution introduced new standards of measurement: the meter and the kilogram. These swept away the hundreds, if not thousands, of different regional standards that had been used throughout France.
Since the Middle Ages, these standards had favored merchants and landowners who were already rich and powerful. The meter and kilogram replaced them with something new: fairness.
However, measurement isn’t a neutral tool; it can be used for darker purposes. In the 17th century, improved surveying techniques allowed land to be parceled out accurately and quickly. So far, so good.
But Oliver Cromwell promptly used these techniques to dispossess the rebellious Irish. European settlers then used them to appropriate the lands of native people in America.
The British Empire was built on high-quality, precisely measured maps. Everyone needed to know who owned what, and who no longer did.
A Measure of Common Sense
I mentioned this double-edged character of measurement when talking to my son. Sure, he said, everything’s measured. But that’s OK. His KPIs give him structure and direction in his work.
And I remembered that fitness-measurement apps had helped his brother to stave off depression during the COVID lockdown.
So maybe my concern about my son’s KPIs was over the top. I’m his dad, and I want him to be happy. And as Vincent observes, measurement is a useful tool. It should promote happiness.
As long as it does that, and we’re all aware of its potential to do the opposite, it’s a good thing. And it’s not like we’re going to stop doing it any time soon anyway.
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