Quantified disappointment

I am a big fan of statistics, facts and data, and the internet has made quantification easy, fast and cheap. In fact, I think a little too easy, fast and cheap for our own good (or my own good).

As you know, you can get market data by the second, count your “friends” on social media, see precisely how much something you’ve done is “liked,” or even check your bank balance as you ride an elevator. 

As a blogger, I can get data on how many visitors come by my site, which posts are viewed more often, where these visitors come from, and so on.

Except now, on this blog, I do none of those things that I used to do at Aguanomics. I dropped tracking to reduce flows to the “data dragnets” deployed by Google (via their free “Analytics” service), Facebook (via their “like” button) and other services. I also chose ignorance for my own sanity, as I have no real way of using the data to write better posts (I don’t use advertising, so I don’t need to refine garbage clickbait posts), and I can’t really get a quality feedback from quantified activity. 

As evidence (for myself), I can think of the many terrible articles on topics I know that get 1000x the reads/likes/shares on other sites, along with dozens of ignorant, simplistic, and trying-to-be-helpful-falling-on-deaf-ears comments. I can also remember “Ask Me Anythings” that I’ve done on Reddit that had 300 to 5,000 upvotes. Those votes disappointed and thrilled me, respectively, and they did reflect different degrees of engagement, but they did not perhaps represent failure or success to readers. If anything, I had more time to give better answers in the “slow” AMAs than I did in the popular ones, where the same question was asked ten times, and I struggled to give short answers to everyone.

We all know that it’s taboo to “talk salary” with friends, family and co-workers because those conversations rarely go well. Maybe it’s nice to know that you make more than anyone, but does that knowledge actually mean anything? Are you happier? Healthier? What about your relations with work colleagues? At my university job, we know we make roughly the same salary because we’re on a bureaucratic scale, and that knowledge removes at least one source of friction that might exist at a job where people are paid based on their negotiating skills, the boss’s prejudice and/or some quantified dimension that may not correlate very well with your actual contribution. 

When I give grades to students, I see exactly the same dynamics: They give too much attention to the grade (especially when nitpicking to raise it) and  too little attention to my comments on what they did right and wrong and how to improve. They resist when I say “grades don’t matter,” as they know that many graduate schools and hiring departments will judge them by their grades, but maybe that filtering indicates that study or work in those places will involve an endless chase after even more grades or KPIs? 

I’m rather happy and relieved to lack data on how popular this new blog is, as it leaves me free to think more about what to write. I am happy to be off Facebook (and, soon, Twitter), as I don’t need to worry about how many likes my latest brainfart post gets, or from whom, or in comparison to the paid popularity of some “thought leader.”

It’s no accident that (sane) people ask “do you love me?” when they need some attention instead of “how much do you love me?”, as it’s easy to be pleased with “yes” and far-too-easy to be disappointed with “7.8.”

My one-handed conclusion is that we need less, not more, quantification in our complex, multi-dimensional, and unique lives.

What quantification would you banish to improve your life? Why don’t you?

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Quantified disappointment”

  1. David,

    A great post and a very valid point. As a beginning blogger, I can’t tell you how reassuring I’ve found your post. Blogging on a more academic topic such as natural resource decisions is going to attract large crowds, but the benefit is in the pursuit of the knowledge and growth via relevant critiques and debates.

    Trent

    1. @Trent — Yes, it’s sometimes hard to “lose the crowd” but that’s the only way if you’re going to pursue research that matters to you (the stuff that keeps you up at night). It’s also the only way for you to be “ahead of the pack” if/when your area becomes fashionable 🙂

  2. This is a great question and one that I find hard to answer right off the bat. However, one quantification does present itself. Age. I am turning 68 this year, and I find I spend two much time thinking about that. Ellen Langer and others have written well about how we are all influenced by the “aging mindset”. One important component of that mindset is an overuse of chronological age to assess people’s strengths, capacities, and developmental prospects. This is one of the quantifications I wish to demote in terms of the attention I pay to it, and I am working on that.

    1. @John — Great example. There’s a lot of research showing that older employees are better in different ways (more patient, faster to understand deeper nuances), so it’s good to build mixed-age teams to take advantage of complementary talents!

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