The United States of metrics: How we embraced a data-driven culture

  • Article by: BRUCE FEILER  , New York Times
  • Updated: June 8, 2014 - 6:06 PM

Poets are out; statisticians are in. How did we become a data-obsessed culture? Let’s count the ways.

Numbers are everywhere, aided by apps, websites and devices that keep track of heart rates, weight, sleep patterns and, of course, how many friends you have.

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With data provided by Spreadsheets, an app that uses body sensors, accelerometers and smart-phone microphones to monitor “how long you go for, and exactly how loud it gets,” the website calculated the average length of sexual experience in all 50 states. New Mexico came in the longest at 7 minutes, 1 second, followed by West Virginia and Idaho. Alaska was the shortest at 1:21, preceded by South Dakota and Vermont.

Among the many things the app records, it does not record or play back audio, its website says, noting, “That would be creepy.”

In the past few years, there has been a revolution so profound that it’s sometimes hard to miss its significance. We are awash in numbers.

Data is everywhere.

Old-fashioned things like words are in retreat; numbers are on the rise. Unquantifiable arenas like history, literature, religion and the arts are receding from public life, replaced by technology, statistics, science and math. Even the most elemental form of communication, the story, is being pushed aside by the list. (Thanks, BuzzFeed!)

The results are in: The nerds have won. Time to replace those arrows in the talons of the American eagle with pencils and slide rules. We’ve become the United States of Metrics. (See sidebar for a statistical overview of our data culture.)

Big Brother isn’t our big enemy anymore. It’s Big Self. That hovering eye in the sky watching every move you make: It’s you.

So what are the consequences of this new numerized world?

Duncan Watts, a social scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of “Everything Is Obvious,” welcomes the trend. He said all this new information enables better decisions.

“If you had to choose between a world in which you do everything based on instinct, tradition or some vague, received wisdom, or you do something based on evidence, I would say the latter is the way to go,” he said.

The challenge is coming up with the proper interpretation of the data, he said. Did you not get a full night’s sleep because you were mindlessly flipping channels or watching Internet porn, or because you were comforting a sick child or having a night of great sex the way they do in New Mexico?

“Coming up with the correct meaning is what’s hard,” Watts said.

Finding the fun in math

Tony Haile, chief executive of Chartbeat, which provides real-time analytics for ESPN, CNN and the New York Times Co., agrees. He said the benefits of metrics far outweigh the risks. Data provides what he calls a “sixth sense,” giving instant feedback that’s objective. A former tour guide to the North Pole, Haile measures his sleep, his exercise, his fat percentage and how many steps he takes each day.

“I do it because it’s fun,” he said. “I get a buzz when I see I’ve hit my 10,000 steps.”

Still, in the same way we never use one sense in isolation, Haile said, the same should apply to data.

“Just as looks can be deceiving, data can also be deceiving because they’re not the whole picture,” he said. “But it’s an important part of the picture and one we didn’t have before. I’m much less concerned about the data taking over as long as we remember that it’s an additional layer.”

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