The joy of measurement

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement by James Vincent had the good fortune to be published more or less when the Johnson government here decided a good wheeze to distract voters’ attention from – well, everything – would be to launch a consultation on the reintroduction of imperial measures alongside metric. The recent by-election results suggest the wheeze failed; maybe the population just isn’t overwhelmed with excitement by the subject of measurement standards.

I am of course one of the minority who does find measurement an unbelievably exciting subject, and I enjoyed reading the book. It uses a chronological structure to explore different aspects of measurement, starting with the ancient world and the emergence of standard measures for trade, moving on to early modern states, the Scientific Revolution and French Revolution, with a separate chapter on early statistics, and ending up indeed with a chapter subtitled “Metric vs imperial and metrology’s culture war” and finally measurement today (including the concept of the ‘quantified self’.

I quite like this summary of the purpose of measurement: “From the ancient world onwards, measurement has been embraced not only for its practical benefits – for its utility in tasks like construction and trade – but also for its ability to create a zone of shared expectations and rules; to mediate our experience with the world and one another, ensuring that the interactions between two strangers who live under the same set of measures can be validated and trusted.” This purpose of mutual benefit sits alongside the use of measurement by rulers and states – and the book indeed cites classic authors like James Scott and Theodore Porter.

Although books such as the wonderful Seeing Like A State, or more recent ones on specific areas of measurement such as Andrew Whitby’s recent The Sum of The People about the history of the census, obviously have a lot more detail than the chapters here, Beyond Measure delivers on its aim of providing an accessible overview of the history of measurement and many of the issues of meaning. It’s a great starting point for anyone not as immersed (as nerds like me) in the measurement literature.

It’s also an enticing read, with anecdotes aplenty (visiting a nilometer, chatting to Brexiteers about pints and miles) and full of my favourite kind of useful facts. Who knew, for example, that, “In England, measurement disputes in markets were settled by a special tribunal known as the ‘court of piepowder’.” It dates to the 11th century, that is prior to the normal court system, and doled out on the spot justice on market day. Piepowder is apparently a corruption of ‘pieds poudr├ęs’ or dusty feet, characterising travelling merchants.

Perhaps the UK Government will, in its ever-more desperate attempts to show something, anything, for Brexit, re-establish piepowder courts in markets up and down the land, should remoaniac stallholders not want to replace their kilos and metres with pounds and feet. For, as the book illustrates, questions of measurement are not (just) technical, but highly political.

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What numbers make visible & what they erase

That I read Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management was a bit random – we’re going away for a week and I didn’t want to start a holiday book, so pulled this bound proof the publisher had sent me off the pile. I’m glad I did. It’s a terrifically interesting book. It’s in effect a business history of slavery in the Caribbean and the American south, using the detailed management records that remain to understand how plantations were run – just as business historians would later use similar documentary evidence to trace the practices of management in industry. As she writes, “Scale required structure.” The sugar and cotton plantations were sometimes very large scale indeed. And the science of management emerged in this context before any manufactories grew to the same kind of scale.

There is a particularly illuminating section on the standardisation of record keeping: “Preprinted forms were an important and overlooked technology in organizing plantation labor.” Early records were hand written and ruled, with documents often sent to absentee owners in England – this was, Rosenthal points out, also one of the earliest instances of the separation of ownership and control, as large plantations were often run by professional managers. (The role of earnings from slavery in fuelling the growth of financial instruments and the City in England are the subject of this UCL research project, Legacies of British Slave-ownership) The availability of standard forms helped spread the ‘scientific management’ techniques – again, ahead of Taylor’s famous introduction of scientific management in industry. (This reminded me of Donald Mackenzie’s brilliant essay on how the commercial availability of options prices calculated by computers helped grow derivatives markets.)

Rosenthal also covers the role of slaves as, literally, human capital. Plantation managers kept inventory records and appied several different valuation techniques. As she observes, this was fundamentally an issue about property and therefore about power and politics, property being something defined by law. (And property in the form of people is more political than most.) By the eve of the Civil War, the total value of enslaved human capital was over $3 billion. (Before anyone takes this particularly noxious version of human capital as an opportunity to knock economics, economists were prominent in the abolition campaign, and historian Thomas Carlyle named economics the ‘dismal science’ for not respecting the property rights of slave owners.)

Rosenthal (formerly a management consultant) ends by pointing out that labor conditions for many people in the world still leave much to be desired: “Confronting plantation account books can remind us how easy it is to overlook the conditions of production from the comfort of a counting house or safety of a computer screen. Reckoning with the ways planters accounted for slavery should encourage us to rethink the kinds of data we record and how we use it. Quantitative records can help us to see farther, but only if we remember what the numbers make visible and what they erase.”

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No escape from the target setting arms race?

Among my holiday reads has been Jerry Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics, published in the UK in a couple of weeks (can be pre-ordered now). The broad thesis of the book, which is a lively read, will be familiar to readers of the literature on the gaming of public service targets. This short book is stuffed with examples of the counter-productive results of insistence on numerical targets.

There is an interesting chapter on the origins of metric-fixation (at least in capitalist economies – the Soviet Union was always rather keen on it), which starts: “The demand for measured accountability and transparency waxes as trust wanes.” Social change following the explosion of protest against authority in the 1960s and the erosion of the post-war class certainties contributed to this process. So did the evident failures in public services and nationalised industries by the 1970s. But as the book goes on to note – and has been explored in the academic literature – public services are not like businesses, having a larger, complex set of aims and depending fundamentally on intrinsic motivation. A thriving public sector is important to the health of the wider economy: “A capitalist society depends for its flourishing on a variety of institutions that provide a counterweight to the market with its focus on monetary gain.”

The book goes on to give a range of examples of targets turned counter-productive in arenas from higher education to medicine and policing to business. Yes, business too. For here targets are linked to remuneration. Yet, as the book notes, economic theory (Holmstrom and Milgrom, as I describe here) and evidence point firmly away from rewarding the attainment of targets whenever individual effort is un-monitorable. Not that this has prevented to spread of performance pay or bonuses, Muller observes: “Although there is a large body of scholarship in the fields of psychology and economics that call into question the premises and effectiveness of pay for measured performance, that literature seems to have done little to halt the spread of metric fixation.” The book ends with a section describing how to use targets intelligently – think about what you’re trying to measure, why and for what purpose. Above all, think. The frustration is that it offers no thoughts about how to roll back the vast swathes of counter-prouctive targetry already afflicting us. Just imagine the outcry if any politician promises a ‘bonfire of the targets’ or less transparency. On the contrary, the arms race seems as intense as ever – when the pitfalls of one type of target are recognized, the solution is more complicated metrics. But dearmament is what we need.

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