Book Review: The Metric Society by Steffen Mau

Living in the digital age often appears akin to being trapped on board a starship with the controls set firmly for the heart of the sun. The feeling that it will all end badly is inescapable. Now, at the eleventh hour, comes Steffen Mau’s timely book, The Metric Society, sent here to reassure us that all our fears are basically well founded.

This small, compact and potentially explosive, little book is packed with incendiary information about the ways in which our personal information is stripped, skinned, broiled and baked into a multiplicity of digital pies. Now, perhaps too late to actually stop them, we find governments, corporations, institutions, criminals and, worse still, banks, have at least one finger in each of them.

Indeed, it’s difficult now to engage at any level of society without submitting personal information that once was no one’s business but your own. It is, of course, nothing new. I first encountered it several years ago, when the local Apple computer vendor refused to sell me a Mac Mini because I refused to give them my address.

There is a big difference, however, between asking where I live and collating every detail about my existence, from my DNA to my personal debt, and cross-matching it for ‘marketing purposes’. This is where Mau, whose urgent narrative, ably preserved in translation by Sharon Howe, rings the alarm bells.

Not before time, he states bluntly enough, “Every conceivable aspect of a person’s digital footprint has the potential to benefit or prejudice their case.”

This accumulation of data is neither random, nor stochastic, he argues. It has long been married to hierarchical points-scoring and comparisons of relative worth, not least within societies that like to sport their egalitarian credentials. Moreover, we have been, and are daily, voluntarily contributing the essential ingredients for absolute control of the quasi-corporate state over the hapless individual.

Steffen Mau explores the anthropogenic roots of hierarchical behaviour in the primate species known as Homo sapiens, but almost overlooks its salient feature – the imperative to secure advantage over your neighbour/competitor/brother/sister, or anyone else that you don’t like the look of.

On page forty-five he writes, “As soon as others improve….I risk falling behind…If I am to avoid seeing my competitive advantage melt away, I need to be constantly on the ball and performing at my best.” Another way of putting this might be, do unto others before they do unto you.

On a more relatable level, the class-distinctions in the UK that just won’t die have been an ideal substrate for social stratification from time immemorial. We have had the means not only to quantify a person’s relative worth to the nearest decimal point for some time. The crude, ink-stained evaluation forms of yesteryear had the same power to commend the obsequious arse-licker and condemn the outspoken innovator, as any loaded e-questionnaire.

The Metric Society, however, describes nothing less than a comprehensive inventory of all the essential areas of an organized society including health, welfare, education, money, mobility and opportunity. In each case, the individual either volunteers or is compelled to give up intimate data before service provision will be considered, and all of this data is available for cross-referencing.

These days, there seems little difference between these a multiplicity of unpalatable choices. It’s something that GDPR has brought into sharp relief, now that you either accept cookies, or do without access to dozens of online sites and services.

Steffen Mau is very keen to point out also that the automated gathering of data, from e-recruitment to computer dating, is not merely potentially dangerous. It has the potential to substantially, if not completely, change human values.

The analogue he uses is the advent, from about the 13th Century onwards, of the seemingly innocuous system of double-entry book-keeping. Fast-forward to the 18th century and we discover that it is the very thing that the ‘get-rich-super-quick’ entrepreneur needs to micro-manage nascent mass-production.

Such a person can see immediately which areas of the business are a worthwhile enterprise, and those that are not. It needn’t even be about profitability. He or she may simply act in order to accrue a (real or imagined) commercial advantage.

Similarly, the automated trawling, scraping and quantification of personal data, family data, and community data heralds a shift that similarly threatens or enhances, depending largely on which side of the tracks you were born. By attaching a ranking and/or rating score for the purposes of comparison, Mau argues, it’s possible to make informed decisions about allocating resources, prioritizing action and targeting need.

It’s also possible to make catastrophic mistakes. At times, Mau makes strenuous efforts to find legitimacy in data mining, and, if anything, rather understates the potential for disaster, “Despite enormous advances in data collection and analysis, automated evaluation and algorithms have a high potential for fallacy.” The phrase, “There are lies, damned lies…and then there are statistics” comes to mind, but perhaps we need something pithier for the 21st Century.

Although the book is largely a word of caution to the wise, The Metric Society expects too much of our credulity. It’s hard to believe, with so much evidence to the contrary, that the quantification of the social will work out any better than global capitalism, interventionist foreign policies, or the (so-called) nuclear deterrent.

In his own example, Mau flags up the ominous and odious development in China of the Social Credit System, which intends to compel citizens to submit social data to the state, so that quantification can be applied in the most antisocial way imaginable. In this version of dystopia, it isn’t just the neighbour’s curtains are twitching; it’s the trigger finger of the surveillance state. It’s just the kind of thing that captures the imagination of multinational corporate entities that find the will of the people such a dreadful inconvenience.

Steffen Mau has done us all a great service by ergonomically condensing and communicating a great deal of alarming news with the calm voice of reason. Perhaps though, The Metric Society is a little too detached. For example, the implications of widely shared e-recruitment data and fully-automated psychometric testing online are huge. It ought to be an illegal practice, for it encourages interrogation rather than discourse. Worse still, job-seekers will already have blacklisted themselves elsewhere in the jobs market by answering the evaluation questions ‘incorrectly’.

There is only one omission from Mau’s otherwise comprehensive overview, but it is significant. In recent years, the notion of ‘Natural Capital’ has gained credence that it does not deserve. It is, quite frankly, a repulsive proposition made in response to the perception that ascribing a conservation status to other living things on the basis of rarity and threat to existence is a failed enterprise.

The alternative, we’re told is to treat the species with whom we share our world (and it’s their world too by the way) as ‘natural capital’ and they must now be expressed as planetary assets, itemized in the world ledger as net contributors to local, regional and global GDP. The white flag has gone up, and the Quantification of Nature, much less ‘the social’ can only lead to accelerated extinctions, first among the most vulnerable species, and then whole ecosystems at a time.

Nature can no more ‘pay its way’ in mercantile terms than humanity can replace the benefits of biodiversity with ‘technological solutions’. Steffen Mau is correct to advise that we apply caution, if not control measures to the quantification of the social. I’d go further. It’s time to dispense with the petty point-scoring. There is no advantage in any of it, not for ourselves, nor for any other living thing.

Michael S. Clark

January 2019

The Metric Society – On the Quantification of the Social 
Steffen Mau
Polity Press
200 Pages
25th  January  2019
First published as ‘Das metrische Wir – Uber die Quantifizierung des Sozialen’ (Suhrkamp Verlag 2017)
Translated by Sharon Howe