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


3 thoughts on “Technology, Meritocracy, and the Problem of Measurement

  1. you make a very useful objection to the whole “ra-ra some technology is awesome so more technology is awesome-er” meme that exploded over the library world during the past decade. i have only just during the past year just recovered from that dangerous meme. ironically, i’ve just saved those two articles using one technology (a read it later bookmarklet) so that I can read it leisurely on another technology (tablet).

    my only objection to your argument above is that you’re forgetting the power of convenience that technology also offers. that is the more seductive of the two (the other being the better measurement you bring up). it’s also the attribute of computing technology that is irrevocably transforming us human beings and the society around us.

    i still argue all the change is good, but it’s important to notice it happening and stay cognizant of what from the past is still valuable and what may actually be worth destroying.

  2. i’ll second that emotion (the last bit, especially).

    i definitely rely on convenience (facebook, and google reader/docs in particular), but what i’ve never been fully convinced of is the irrevocable nature of technological change. we’re a pretty adaptable species, but since i’ve no interest in trying to pretend there was some golden age, i’m also unwilling to bet there’s one path (technological advancement) that’s going to get us to one.

    i’m pretty crunchy these days, so it’s possible i worry too much. thanks for balancing out my crazy rants!

  3. i think i sacrificed clarity in my earlier comment when i mentioned the “irrevocable [transformation]” of people. i did not mean that statement in the way it is usually meant: that we’re all becoming cyborgs constantly tapped into the hivemind of the internet.

    what i meant was that in the same way the technology of writing rewired humans brains and gave us a whole new set of limitiations as well as dependencies (yes, i read Ong), the technology we’re now talking about (computational devices, interwebs, facetweeting, etc) as being the new thing nobody really understands but everyone wants to have an opinion about is doing stuff to our brains that will make us in the future better at doing some thing, worse at doing other things.

    i am not passing a value judgement on the other things or on the some things. i’m just pointing out that it’s probably happening and that we won’t know exactly what it is until two hundred years from now some sociologist and/or historian does a study of the early 21st century.

    in the meantime, though, we’re all doing what humans have always done when faced with some new technology: trying to figure out what it’s for. and what it’s for mostly boils down to “it’s kinda nifty. i feel all high-tech when i use it”.

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