‘The Metric Society’


Steffen Mau, Polity, 200 pages, $22.95. Measurements pervade life and society. Infants are weighed the moment they blink into the world. Pupils are graded. Schools are judged on their students’ performance, universities on graduates’ job prospects. Companies monitor the productivity of employees while CEOs watch the share price. Countries tabulate their GDP, credit-rating agencies assess their economies, investors eye bond yields. The modern world relies on such data. And the numbers are proliferating. If everything people do and every step they take is tracked, they lose the freedom to act independently of such oversight, wrote Steffen Mau, a German sociologist, in “The Metric Society.” Published in German in 2017 and now in Sharon Howe’s English translation, Mau’s book is a wide-ranging tour through rankings and ratings, charts and graphs. When these technologies become embedded in society, he said, life is reduced to checkboxes. Faith in experts is replaced by devotion to figures. Meanwhile, power is transferred from individuals to those who create and maintain the scoring systems. These in turn can be gamed and their purposes perverted. When different sources of data are linked together, it becomes possible to paint an eerily complete picture of a person, and to predict with some accuracy both their net worth and their future behavior, Mau wrote. You see it in car insurance. You see it in health insurance when it comes to smoking. It risks descending into a 21st-century dystopia that is almost as bleak, in its impersonal way, as those imagined in the darkest novels of the 20th.