Friday, September 6

There's a particular fantasy you seem to find all over the place in American business. It's a complicated delusion, but put crudely, it manifests as a belief that numbers are intrinsically meaningful: That measurement - or the appearance of measurement - creates, rather than reflects, meaning. That if a number may be derived and named, it means a Thing, that the number in some sense is the Thing, and that by knowing it, we may exercise Control over conditions we now understand, having affixed nomenclature to them.

This belief is seldom really stated as such. It doesn't operate as a formal school of thought. Rather, it's a sort of implicit factor in the flood of confusion and nonsense that so reliably attends conversations about metrics, reporting tasks, and the instrumentation of processes. If stated directly, in broad daylight, it generally evaporates. There's something slippery about the notion. You might notice it everywhere out of the corner of your eye, if you're paying attention, but you can never quite apprehend its full dimensions. Like a great many such mental constructs, it is not strictly true, but by virtue of being held in mind by so many people, it is very real in its effects.

I suppose all I'm talking about is kind of a degraded, lossy echo of the fundamental intuition shared by scientists and technicians that the world is susceptible to measurement and structured alteration. Which goes a long way towards explaining why technocrats and adherents of "Scientific Management" are so goddamned susceptible to it, and how it has so thoroughly corrupted the American politics of labor, education, drugs, and war.

To that list I suspect we could add the totalizing, comprehensive, and profoundly unaccountable surveillance that the machinery of our state seems to be exercising in concert with the machinery of our economy at large. Not that it's a straight line from some middle manager making a bad decision based on a spreadsheet to the US Government's adoption of the paranoid fantasies of the 1990s as policy, but I think that when the history of our emergent dystopia comes to light, if it ever really does, it is going to be chock full of people who are profoundly deluded about measurement and the possibility of control.