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When ‘special measures’ become ordinary

To be measured was once a sign of failure. It is now not only common place, we frequently measure ourselves publicly, and voluntarily.

Flickr/Phil Gradwell. Some rights reserved.

The words ‘special measures’ are often uttered with some foreboding. If you are being put under special measures you are failing. The only way to turn things around is to give you some very clear and measurable targets. Special measures is a term that is still widely used today, its blunt heftiness still provokes fear, but in an age of ubiquitous measurement it serves a largely symbolic function. We have moved from the threat of intermittent extra measures to the ongoing, inescapable and constant measures that come with neoliberal competition.

Special measures were originally referred to as ‘special’ precisely because it was unusual to be treated to such overt metric based judgments and actions. But such measurement is now a prevalent and embedded part of the organisation, ordering and governance of the social world. It is no longer the threat of potentially being exposed to extra measures that counts, but rather power now operates through our unceasing exposure to them.

What is surprising is that we don’t always have such measures imposed upon us, rather it can be a choice provoked by the cultural desire for quantification. Part of the shift towards what we might think of as ordinary measures is self-imposed. We like to be measured. It is fun, affirmative and maybe even satisfying. We enjoy accumulating data about ourselves from which we might measure our activities and respond to targets.

The quantified self movement – “knowing yourself through numbers” – is now fairly familiar. This is based upon people measuring some aspect of their lives and either comparing it against their own archived activities or against those of a community of other users – this can range from social media statistics reflecting our status and popularity to fitness app data.

Smartphone’s have enabled an escalation of metrics about us to be readily at hand. Apps like Strava enable people to easily capture their exercise data, for instance, and then use this data to track their own progress or to compete with others. Then we have the physical presence of wearable devices designed to place our bodies under measure. It is becoming increasingly common to see FitBit, Jawbone and other similar wrist based devices that capture data about the activities of the bodies to which they are attached. Such devices range in sophistication and in the metrics they track, but all are intended to measure the body and its activities – from the number of steps taken, to distance travelled, to heart rate and calorie burn.

We now even have life insurance companies offering incentives to those who are prepared to share their wearable data with them. Here the body is exposed to new types of measurement, new targets and the impulses that they bring. Then, of course, we have the recent launch of the Apple Watch. This is a device that continues with this trend and which is prepared to act as a ‘personal trainer’, suggesting activities and reminding the user when it is time to stand up and move around.

With such devices, and their ‘haptic’ properties, we can see the creeping extension of our connectivity as our bodies directly connect into these data networks. We are, as Will Davies has put it in his recent book, The Happiness Industry, ‘living in the lab’. Even our emotions can be measured for tracking and manipulation. This ‘lab’ is not just measuring our exercise and activities but also our emotions, well-being, health and even our sexual and reproductive properties.

So, part of the shift from special to ordinary measures is based upon the idea that metrics are fun, a consumable, and that they can be used to hone and perfect our bodies – to train us in how to live well. These types of devices afford the self-trained individual to adhere to the ethos of competition that we now know to be a preference and driving force of neoliberal governance. This ethos of competition can then be scaled down to the level of the body.  But not all of these ordinary measures are things that we choose to opt into.

There are also those measures that act upon us – some of which we are aware of and others act below the level of our consciousness. We know that data is being routinely extracted about us, and we know that we are being measured as part of the routine workings of contemporary capitalism. Judgments about whether we are a good and worthwhile customer are obvious. As are judgments about our riskiness for lending or for insurance. The metrics informing these are now refined and powerful.

Contemporary capitalism is based upon how well it measures its customers and how well it uses these measures to distribute resources. It is ten years since Nigel Thrift published his book Knowing Capitalism, and things have only gotten more ‘knowing’ in the interim. Prediction is now an algorithmic normality. We expect it. Organisations can ‘know’ about individuals with greater precision. This tells us that the measurement of activity is central to the workings of consumer capitalism – from stock flows in automated warehouses to the predictions of what films you might like to watch.

In the workplace, the art of governance is the art of performance measurement. To be productive is to do well against the measures that are deployed upon us. The transformation in the data assemblage and the extraction of various types of data mean that we can be measured from any angle and upon any aspect of our work. These measures can be taken in isolation, to show which part of our role we are strongest on or, more likely, weakest on. Because so much data is generated through the devices with which we often work, virtually all aspects of our performance can be measured.

Performance measurement solutions are common place, with software packages enabling the visualisation of metrics – making our capacity and activities instantly comparable. And there is of course an industry around performance measurement, with software, experts and analysts looking to measure talent, to locate failings or to expose hidden value or inefficiency. This is embodied in industry awards for the pursuit of the best performance measures, the best system or the most innovative use of performance metrics. The escalation and intensification of performance measurement and tracking is a product of the pursuit of the perfect measure of our worth and value. The result is that measurement spreads, rapidly. In higher education, for instance, we have what has been referred to in a recent report as ‘the metric tide’.

What I have provided here is only a very brief outline of what is now a vast assemblage of systems of measurement, it is only cursory but it is intended to be suggestive of how we are measured in our bodily actions, in our consumption and in our labour. The social world is coming to be ordered around these variegated means of measurement – with the social world and individual lives being both captured and produced in these measures. With special measures, the power was in the infrequency and threat of target setting and data gathering. The power of ordinary measures is in their constant, ongoing and underlying presence. The pressure and disciplining power of measurement are with us all the time, not just periodically or intermittently. They are checking, constantly, that we are productive and competitive.

On various fronts measures are now a central and defining part of our everyday lives. In some instances we might be seduced into measuring ourselves, in others it might be part of our consumption practices or our worklives. It would seem though that measurement has intensified to the point where it is central to the very functioning of the social world and the power dynamics that are at play within it. The desire to measure is strong where competition is a key ordering principle of the social world. As such, the desire to measure is ravenous today.

We might say that this is linked to the kind of ‘everyday neoliberalism’ to which Philip Mirowski has referred, which is to say that neoliberal ways of thinking permeate all aspects of social life. We are pushed into competition by the systems of measurement that act upon us – either encouraging us or commanding us to join in. To compete is to be measured. As we compete to hone our bodies and to be perfect subjects, as we compete as customers for preferential treatment or to be well-known by convenient filtering algorithmic systems, and as we compete to be a good worker or to merely survive the workplace - we are being exposed to, and are engaging with, ordinary measures. These measures may not be special anymore, but this makes them all the more powerful as a presence in our lives.


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About the author

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. He is the author of Metric Power, Punk Sociology, Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation, and New Media: The Key Concepts (with Nicholas Gane). He is on Twitter @davidgbeer.


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