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Steffen Mau
How are metrics changing our society?

On sofas and in queues, some people engage in a new ritual that’s all about self-control and self-affirmation: we review our metrics, our self-tracking statistics on our daily step count, sleep quality, calorie intake, learning accomplishments and even menstruation.

The metric system was born of the free revolutionary and egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution. It replaced a host of obscure units of measurement that were defined and manipulated by the powers that be – and often in their own favour. The revolutionaries supplanted them with the metre, initially defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. This immutable and uniform metric system, unalterable by human fiat, promised equality and rationality.

Today, over two centuries later, metrics are undergoing a renaissance: but smartwatches, eye tracking and apps for every aspect of life and the human body do not promote equality and non-discrimination, they increasingly draw distinctions between individuals. So-called “superscores” crunch the data on a vast range of different aspects of our daily lives into a kind of overall personal assessment. These personal scores cement selected differences, charge them with meaning and are used to justify systematic discrimination. In future, superscores might be used to exclude a person from certain sectors in the housing market, for example, on the basis of data on their physical fitness, mental stability, or even learning scores on vocabulary apps.

While the display on our mobile phones can reveal who we and others are at any precise point in time, on the one hand, metrics are now creating an opaque and exclusionary system, on the other. Steffen Mau, a professor of macrosociology, investigates the social repercussions of increasingly pervasive social and personal “scorecards”. He challenges the charismatic clout of these numbers and presents strategies to avoid taking metrics, unlike the egalitarian standard of the metre, to absurd extremes in this age of data capitalism.