Global Crises of Measurement: Whose Measures, Whose Future? [video]

The post-modern world is overrun with measures and standards. And although we may not realize it, much of the anomie and injustice of the post-modern lifeworld is a result of the proliferation of measures and standards. Today we do not face the pathology of the “one-dimensional man” who is distorted to fit into one or a few abstract standards (although in some places and institutions, we still face that). The post-modern condition involves the fragmentation humanity, a multi-perspectival personality, refracted through a prism of standardized differentiations and mass-customizations…. Here is more footage from the ITC. The whole video can be purchased through the Meta-Integral Foundation.

I’ve placed the relevant excerpts from the paper below: Stein, Z. (in review). Desperate measures: the global crises of measurement and their meta-theoretical solutions. Paper prepared for the 4th Biannual Integral Theory Conference, Sonoma, CA. July 2015. [pdf] [pdf_slides]

Global Crises of Measurement: Whose Measures, Whose Future?

To help gain an overview the situation with regards to post-modern planetary measurement infrastructures, I’ll follow a common trope in critical meta-theory, from Habermas (1973) and Bhaskar (1993) to Harvey (2014), and talk in terms of a series of crises. What follow are best understood as crisis because they are systemic, endemic, and signal a need for deep structural transformation (in the strictly Wilberian (1995; 1999; 2006) sense of the term, as a need for vertical structural transcendence and reorganization). All of these crises are interconnected, ricocheting between the system and the lifeworld, and around the quadrants and planes of social being. I cannot detail each of the six crises here due to limitations of space, so I offer only overviews and allusions.

Economic crisis: poverty, inequality, and econometrics

It has been known for some time that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a simplistic misrepresentation of the health of any national economy; it is also a poor index of cultural modernity, human rights violations, and democracy (Sen, 1982). Yet GDP continues to be discussed in a serious manner and continues to drive national economic agendas. Similarly, most representations of profit, the so-called bottom line, are also gross simplifications of what makes a company valuable. In both cases a simplistic quantitative index is use in summary, and in place of richer qualitative analysis, or even just a more complex quantitative analysis with multiple parameters.

One important thing missed by summary indices of economic systems (like GDP, or simple calculations of profit) is intra-systemic inequalities—the differences between the most well off and the least well off are disguised. Highly profitable companies and nations with rapidly rising GDP often house staggering inequalities of wealth. In fact, in many organizations the rate of profit and the rate of exploitation (and thus increasing inequality) are correlated (Bowles & Gintis, 1998; Harvey, 2006). The less you pay workers, the more you skim off the top, and the more profits go up. GDP is similar, in that it is the perpetual expansion of the economy that drives numbers up. GDP goes up as things that used to be free are brought into the market and given a price. This means that we would be lowering GDP, for example, by teaching people to grow their own food, or treat simple aliments with herbs they grow themselves, or start a free neighborhood parent group that shares childcare. On the other hand, opening a childcare center, herbal company, or commercial farm expands the economy and makes the GDP go up. Take something people can do or get for free and sell it back to them, that is what makes for economic value according to simplistic growth-oriented measures like the GDP (see Eisenstein, 2011).

Importantly, there is vast and contested terrain beyond the debate over GDP and the distortion of human cooperation due to the hypertrophying of the profit motive. Consider, for example, the role of credit and financial rating agencies, and the dozens of other standards-based measurement intensive activities involved in high finance. The recent economic crisis was largely the result of inadequate and deceptive ratings applied to collateralized debt obligations (or CDOs)—most of predatory high-finance runs on deceptive “metrics” (George, 2013). The pretense of having reliable and “true” measurements of risk and return was used to distort perceptions of reality and create whole realms of fictitious capital (Harvey, 2006). Of course, all measurement-enabled fictions, or measurement–induced demi-realities (Bhaskar, 2002) eventually come crashing down, especially when they run up against the actual limits of the biosphere.

Ecological crisis: the politics of measurement and complex systems.

The ontology and epistemology of the climate change debates have been explored in depth from the perspective of integral meta-theories (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010). Less explored are the ways that measurement and quantification impact climate epistemologies and contribute to the increasingly pluralized ontologies of the climate debate. Knowledge is made by metrics, especially quantitative and scientific knowledge. Moreover, the climate change debate has become so deeply politicized that trustworthy measures are hard to find. At the heart of every climatological debate is the interpretation, use, or placement of a measurement instrument (or thousands of them, as in the case of global temperature readings, where thermometers are tracked over decades, dotted across the entire surface of the earth). The nightly news abounds with results and percentages gleaned from measures we know very little about. Sometimes the numbers put us at ease, but more often they cause us distress. The mass media is engaged in uncertainty management through manipulations in measurement and the representation of quantitative data (Chomsky, 1990). There is, of course, a lot to say on the science and politics of climate change indicators, which is an important sub-plot in the recent social and political history of quantitative objectivity (Porter, 1995).

More important, I believe, is the fact that as the climate crisis deepens there will be a proliferation of standards and measures related to sustainability, ecological accounting, and environmental law. This brings to mind the specter of an eco-fascist dystopia of hyper-measured and standardized humans, radically curtailed in their freedoms due to the precarious ecological limbo in which they find themselves. The need to strictly enforce future environmental regulations due to extreme climate disruption and delicate ecosystem balances will create conflicts around measures as simple as ounces of water and particles of Co2. In the context of a future where humanity is engaged in a reflective and delicate balancing act with the biosphere, environmental standards-based regulations and related measures will be some of the most important and politically contentious issues on the world stage.

As the ecological crisis deepens we must remember that there are unjust ways towards sustainable futures. Sustainability does not entail justice; sustainability is a lower-right quadrant, systems idea, and can be achieved by means of any number of socio-cultural forms. We must make a moral commitment to the idea that sustainability requires social justice. The future of ecological regulations, standards, and measures must be democratized and made integral, as I discuss further below. Of course, Wilber (1995) noted some time ago that the ecological crisis is better thought of as a crisis of consciousness—the noosphere is the problem, not the biosphere—what we see is truly a crisis of decision-making, resulting from erroneous and demi-real worldviews. So education is near the heart of the solution to the ecological crisis.

Educational crisis: testing, standards, and marketization.

I have already discussed this in several places above, and have a forthcoming book on the subject (Stein, 2014). What I will say here is that the great critical theorist of education, Michael Apple (2001), pointed out well before Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Common Core Standards and Assessments that American schools could much more easily be turned into a marketplace if there were national standards and national tests. This is because there would then be a single clear axis of competition and comparison. His words were prophetic. The US educational system is undergoing a transformation into a largely market driven and privately run collection of enterprises. Things have changed so rapidly and radically that even mainstream one-time-conservative policy makers are beginning to take note (Ravitch, 2013). And standardized testing is at the center of this sweeping revolution in mass education.

The entire movement towards marketization is based on the presumption that testing can be used to quantify and thus monetize educational value. As I have argued elsewhere (Stein, 2014), this involves an oversimplification of educational value and an overvaluation of tests as measures of educational processes—that is, it is a thoroughgoing non-integral, flatland policy. Nevertheless, we will see in the next 10 years a testing-based overhaul of the US public schools. State run schools will largely be replaced by a diverse and socio-economically stratified educational marketplace, with tests and standards playing a major role towards ensuring that vouchers are spent on schools that meet state testing benchmarks.

Large-scale standardized testing should be seen as perpetrating a form of injustice that has long and complex roots in the control and categorization of urban populations, especially laborers and the poor (Gould, 1996). Testing has forever been part of the scientization of education, as well as the commercialization of psychology (Spring, 1989). Today testing is being used to surveil and discipline whole schools and districts that are yearly threatened with being shut down and replaced by privately run charter-school chains. The people most impacted by the tests (teachers and students) are the farthest away from influence over the nature and content of the tests (Stein, 2014; Hogopian, 2014).

Preferable futures for educational assessment involve the democratization of authority structures of schools and the elimination of all high-stakes practices and polices in favor of formative, developmental, and transformative approaches—a move toward truly authentic assessment. There are real possibilities for justice–oriented approaches to assessment and student evaluation (Neil, 2015), as well as use of the learning sciences and diagnostic technologies to improve student learning (Dawson, 2015). Of course, we cannot get sweeping education reform in a democracy unless we change how people vote and the means by which laws are made.

Political crisis: voting, polling, and the representation of interiors.

The ancient world provides accounts of many different voting technologies used in the city states along the Mediterranean (Duncan, 1984): the volume of clapping hands in an assembly; the weight of pebbles dropped in different buckets by a crowd; hands raised; and of course, casting paper ballots. Still other peoples decided to have arguments, to debate and have a jury of deliberators, with rules of evidence and discourse. These are different technologies for measuring the mood of a people. Discourse and argumentation and decisions by juries are good, because they are more participatory and qualitative. But the benefit of a simple vote is its straightforward quantitative right/wrong determination. Whereas arguments can always be questioned, a vote seems cut and dry. Voting is also anonymous and can easily scale beyond the assembly to the city or country as a whole. Nevertheless, voting is a crude technology invented thousands of years ago, and does not do a good job of representing the complexity and stratified nature of human interiorities. It is not a good basis for the election of officials or for the creation of law.

Political polling currently supplements voting as a window into what the people are thinking. But these are also crude tools that oversimplify thoughts and feelings to numbers and statistics. Again, this is not wrong in principle (numbers are essential); it is just a very partial view of things, especially interiorities. Opinion polls and large-scale survey based profiles of populations can often be manipulative and misleading precisely because of their quantitative clarity (Scott, 1998). They are composed on what survey builders call selected response items (or multiple choice questions), so they literarily put words in your mouth. The instrument itself is ridged and forces a wide diversity of thought and feeling into a very constrained set of possible responses. Moreover, the sample size and demographics of the populations claimed to be representative are usually not (e.g., most political polling is restricted to ground-line phones, and is rarely done on cell phones; a random sample of ground-lines is very different from a random sample of cell phone holders, both generationally and socio-economically). Details of survey design and sample construction aside, voting and polling provide a form of democracy where the people only get to say yes or no, or rate it on a scale from 1-5.

This is very different from what is often called deliberative democracy (Habermas, 1996), where instead of spectatorship and voting, citizens are engaged in discussions and cooperative decision-making. This is essentially a transition from a quantitative to a qualitative representation of interiorities (from voting to discussing), and a very important deepening of the truest aspects of our great democratic traditions. But while it works wonders at the level of the local cooperative (Buck & Villines, 2007) going to scale requires leveraging new web-technologies that deal with qualitative argumentation in quantitative ways (e.g., gathering text-analytical meta-data on deliberative forums as a means of emergent policy creation). We must use technology as a way to lift and make visible all the voices. This means finding ways to deal with “big data” about human interiority. The future of deliberative democracy is web-based and localized, and predicated upon the aforementioned educational prerequisites, as well as freedom of information, and basic guarantees for health care.

Health care crisis: biometrics, diagnostic categories, and the future of medicine

Similar to education, medical diagnostics can be used to improve science and treatment, but they can also be used to bureaucratize organizational processes toward the delivery of care under the headings of profit and accountability. Ideally medical measures and standards would be driven by science and be used to expand understanding and provide increasingly accurate and specialized care. However, the shadow of medical diagnostics is long (Illich, 1976; Nelkin & Tancredi, 1989). Today official standards (such as the DSM, and Merck Manual) have been built by profit-oriented organizations, and public oversight commissions (such as the FDA) have been shown to be infiltrated by the very companies most in need of oversight. Moreover, as the healthcare system continues to expand the politicization of medical measurements, standards of practice, and record keeping will continue to increase.

Of course, the measurement of the human body for medical purposes is a very old practice. So is the use of medical measures to stigmatize, institutionalize, and oppress alterative populations and deviance in lifestyle (Foucault, 1973). Diagnostic categories define who is sick and who is not. They define what is a disease (and thus what is covered by insurance) and what is not. Diagnostic measures always reveal some things while hiding others. In particular, they typically characterize aliments as discrete disease entities, amenable to a specific localized and targeted fix. Compare this to diagnostics in Eastern medicine, where an aliment is put in the context of a whole body energy system. Medical diagnostics often too formally standardize the human body and life course, and can result in misunderstandings about the nature of disease and individual differences (Capra & Luisi, 2014). Without a major reform in measures and standards in medicine, future health care systems will continue to become increasingly counter-productive, resource intensive, and the source of iatrogenic disease. Of course, the mind and body are connected, so it would make sense that crises in health care systems would correlate with crises in personality systems.

Personality crisis: the hyper-realty and hyper-reflectivity of the over-measured lifestyle

This has been discussed above, and I have elsewhere theorized about the current species wide identity crisis in which humanity is embroiled (Stein, 2015). We have been fractured into a thousand imagines of humanity, with competing worldviews and competing definitions of human origins, the human self, soul, and mind. Our species is playing out an identity crisis on the world stage, and for the first time we are collectively facing the fact we do not know what it means to be human.

In the post-modern west, where lifestyle and worldview pluralism reigns, you can pick your self-related measure (intelligence, money, credentials, titles, fitness, etc.), and you can find a group that hypertrophies it. There are a wide variety of new technology enabled self-related measures, from Facebook “likes” to smartphone apps that track your steps and calories. It should be noted also that the automated data sorting done as a routine part of government surveillance as well as the complex psychometric advertisement-generating backbends built into social media and online marketplaces are measurement infrastructures; and they shape our experiences in ways that are beyond our control. We are over-measured and super-standardized, caught in a web of complex self-shaping infrastructures. All this right at the moment when we are least sure of what the shape of our humanity ought to be. The old stories about human identity—the old ideals and standards of human character, health, and livelihood—they have dissolved. In their place is a pastiche of ideals and lifestyles, standardized differentiations, without an overarching form or narrative.

Integral Meta-theory offers a complex multi-dimensional model of the psyche, which allows practitioners to create a constellation of self-related measures as part of a unique integral psychograph (Wilber, 1999). I have previously argued for an integral metrological pluralism in the realm of psychological measurement (Stein & Hiekkinen, 2009). It is a natural outcome of a model of the self that involves levels, lines, states, stages, and types (each has its own marketplace of measures). Beyond this plurality of representations, there is the Unique Self, which is beyond any and all measures. Uniqueness is the apocalypse of measurement; respecting it is one of the goals of Integral Metrology.