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.”
Others, though, are concerned. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a statistician and former options trader who wrote the bestseller “The Black Swan,” about unexpected events, said he believes the current obsession with metrics is a seductive trap.
“The evil here is not having metrics,” he said. “The problem is that you start trying to maximize every metric you have and reduce everything else.”
Taleb said he likes knowing how many kilograms of meat he’s buying, but if his meal is measured only by kilograms of meat and calories consumed, then dozens of other uncountable qualities, like the pleasure of the food or the quality of the conversation, go ignored.
“As a scientist, I can say that very little is measurable,” he said, “and even those things that are measurable, you cannot trust the measurement beyond a certain point.”
Many nonscientists are even more frustrated. Anne Lamott, a novelist and nonfiction writer whose bestsellers include “Bird by Bird” and “Traveling Mercies,” is concerned that the headlong rush into data is overshadowing “everything great and exciting that someone like me would dare to call grace.
“What this stuff steals is our aliveness,” she said. “Grids, spreadsheets and algorithms take away the sensory connection to our lives, where our feet are, what we’re seeing, all the raw materials of life, which by their very nature are disorganized.” Metrics, she said, rob individuals of the sense that they can choose their own path, “because if you’re going by the data and the formula, there’s only one way.”
Numbers are a man’s world?
Lamott said the obsession with quantification also represents a male point of view, because it favors order.
“Women have always been handmaidens of birth and death, and that means mess and instinct,” she said. Data, by contrast, gives the appearance of control. “Everything that is truly human is the opposite of that,” she said. “It’s about surrendering control. The surface and numbers aren’t going to hold if your child gets sick or your wife gets cancer.”
Given that everyone faces messiness sooner or later but that everyone also seems to enjoy a bit of data gazing, maybe what’s needed is a fresh way of putting all these numbers in perspective. Curiously, one seems to be at hand, and it even has backing from social scientists: It’s called the law of diminishing returns. Numbers can help, but after a while they become overkill. What we need is a simpler model, something more akin to pass-fail.
“The analogy I would make is diet,” said Watts, of Microsoft Research. “If you do a rigorous, exhaustive study of dietary science, I guarantee all you’re going to get is confused. There are thousands of studies out there, and they’re all contradictory. It’s just hopeless. Instead, eat reasonable food, exercise, get a good night’s sleep. After all, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow.”
Taleb concurs. There are two schools of thought about metrics, he said. You can optimize everything, or you can do what the ancients did and say, “Good enough.”
“Good enough is vastly more rigorous than any metric,” he said, “and it’s more humane, too. Once you reduce a human to a metric, you kill them.”
Or, as the greatest numbers person of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, warned, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”