Technology, Meritocracy, and the Problem of Measurement


This is not about how much I dislike any of the three above-mentioned things. I use technology and measurement to make decisions about merit all the time. Instead, I want to offer a broad critique of them, and suggest a way for libraries to differentiate themselves as institutions in the face of pervasive cultural myths. There is an unspoken connection between what is transparent and what is measurable, that the combination of the two creates a gold standard of creating value, so I wanted to take a quick pairing of quotes to untie them:

Belief in the inherent progressivism of the Internet and digital activism obscures the way transparency actually exaggerates those asymmetries of power that Sifry so earnestly believes will be reversed…. But web technologies have rendered the defenseless citizen far more transparent than any well-fortified government agency or corporation. Institutions use their existing power to better exploit the affordances of new technologies; they don’t level the playing field, let alone turn the tables. -Sarah Leonard, The Fog of More

Sarah Leonard’s quote is somewhat out of context, but it is worth honoring the fact that any large-scale, internet based action requires a significant investment of time and resources. What continues to matter is that those with more resources, information technology or otherwise, do more with them to their own benefit: “transparency” through technology doesn’t level the playing field, it’s just a shift of where resources are or are not. But what about measurability?

By measuring as much of our behavior as possible and converting it into algorithmically analyzable data, we are supposed to learn the truth about what we really value, but this process simply creates an ideological justification for our believing that we want is only what can be measured. -Rob Horning, Meritocracy and Measurement Myths

Technology, in any form, from the abacus to using computers for data mining, enables measurement. That’s fine. These tools are neither good nor evil, but the ability to measure is dependent on having those resources. Now consider our students: while they supposedly have some way to provide feedback, the reality is that they are the subject of technological measurement. Given the amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching and spending on technology schools do, it begs the question: what is all this for, when students are going deeper and deeper into debt, not getting jobs, tuition keeps going up, and are no more or less happy than anyone else?  Despite the fact that students are more measurable than ever, we continue to hear the same gripes about how less than impressive they are.

We are increasingly leaning on technology to enable measurement to determine value. But in addition to that, and maybe even above that, libraries need to promote and value the human in every student, in every interaction, in every classroom, in every meeting, in every technology, in every book, in every database, and in ourselves. Technology, meritocracy, and measurement are all part and parcel of working in the 21st century, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

But what will differentiate between one school and another, one library and another, is how they value and promote something which is immeasurable, the human being:

In particular, orienting education toward finding and reaping the talented at the expense of attention to the less talented betrays the possibilities of a humanist education, in which “every child is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society.” Conceiving of education spending as a mode of investment than can be evaluated in terms of economic returns vulgarizes not only the education system but the social definitions of intelligence and “merit.” -Rob Horning, Meritocracy and Measurement Myths