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Our growing reliance on the ‘quantify everything’ economy

Some courts use software to help set prison terms by assessing the likelihood that an individual will commit future crimes.

Our growing reliance on the ‘quantify everything’ economy
Representative image

NEW YORK: One of the promises of digital life is that more data can help us make better choices. But we also need to be mindful of the economic and human costs of putting a Fitbit on every aspect of being human.

There are movements all around us to quantify and optimise more parts of our lives. Financial services companies crunch numbers to assess who should qualify for a home mortgage.

Companies like Apple and Amazon want to make people healthier by giving us and our doctors more information about our sleep, heart rate and other aspects of our bodies.

Some courts use software to help set prison terms by assessing the likelihood that an individual will commit future crimes.

And as my colleagues described in an article published this week, more workplaces are quantifying how employees spend their time.

By monitoring to the minute what people do on their computers and in interactions with colleagues or clients, companies are trying to measure the effectiveness of call center employees, financial professionals and even hospice care chaplains, and to direct how they spend their time.

Productivity techniques that relied on data were popularised in the 20th century on factory floors and were used later for blue-collar professionals like truck drivers and Amazon warehouse packers, but they have spread to office jobs, too. We can see the appeal.

What’s the point of technology if not to inform our choices or take human error out of the equation?

At work, people who liked having their labor quantified said it made them aware of how much time they were wasting and provided a better measure of their efforts.

Hard workers might find it attractive to have technology — sometimes derisively called “bossware,” or boss software — quantify the slackers versus the industrious employees.

That can sometimes be elusive in a job, whether you’re working as a grocery cashier or a technology chief executive.

If you are familiar with the ways that sports like baseball and soccer have embraced statistics-heavy decision making to assess athletes and dictate strategy, this is “Moneyball” for desk jockeys.

But Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist and author of the book “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World,” is a skeptic that technology can or should help free us from the messiness of human decisions.

Yes, it’s useful for computers to sift through reams of financial records to help spot potentially fraudulent credit card payments and for mortgage companies to analyse whether they grant loans disproportionately to white homeowners and use that information to change the system.

But in many instances, data and people must work in tandem.

Broussard told me that there has been a technology fantasy for decades that computers can judge workers or set fair prison sentences. But most aspects of life, including being good at your job, are not math equations.

“It does not make any sense to use these kinds of monitoring practices,” Broussard said. “They are not adequate for the ways that people actually work. People are not machines.”

Broussard gave an example of group activities that people do in school and at work.

We know some people put in more effort than others. That might feel unfair or annoying, but there is a reason that group work endures.

People have different and complementary skills that can make the sum greater than each individual contribution.

Collaborating often makes work better and more enjoyable, and a computer score can’t necessarily measure that.

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Shira Ovide
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