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The quantify-everything economy


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.

By Shira Ovide


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 optimize 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 Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram 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 popularized 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?a


At work, as The New York Times investigation detailed, 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 skeptical 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 analyze 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 that 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.


Also, she said, innovation happens when people challenge conventional ways of doing things, but that is discouraged by systems programmed to steer everyone to an imagined ideal of the status quo. People tend to believe it’s smart for others to be monitored and assessed with data, she said, but hate it when it happens to them.


I asked Jodi what she learned in her months of reporting about whether software could someday better assess people’s value at work or guide them to more fruitful ways to spend their energy. She said workers, for the most part, don’t believe that the full spectrum of what they do can be quantified.


“Perhaps one day in the future, someone will invent ‘bossware’ — that is, management technology — that will truly earn workers’ trust,” Jodi said. “But the productivity-tracking technology we wrote about in this story often provokes rage and resentment because it just doesn’t match the reality of what it means to do a great job.”


Read the full investigation, which also assesses how efficiently you are reading the article. I was more efficient at reading because I knew that I was being watched. It also made me anxious.


For more reading:


In The Morning newsletter, David Leonhardt explained how worker-monitoring systems like those in The Times’ investigation fit with the larger trend in which employers have more power over employees.


In 2019, my colleague Noam Scheiber spent time talking to workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York. He wrote about the upsides of quantifying every aspect of the job and the sense that doing so stifled people’s autonomy and initiative.


A book by Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home,” has more about the past and present of management productivity techniques.


The authors also discussed their book this week on “The Ezra Klein Show,” a Times Opinion podcast. (Warzel is a former Times journalist.)

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