Slaves to the Numbers

We are humans, not robots. We have brains and hearts, not computers. Why then do we enslave ourselves to robotic, computer-numerical evaluation of what we do, how our days have gone, and everything else in our lives?

By Mark D. Harris

The topic of our study in the young married adult class at church yesterday was “Leaving a Legacy”. For the first time in years, I did not have to teach and so had the rare privilege of just listening. The teacher was describing the importance of being intentional and taking time to build a legacy with your family. “Life” he said, “is more than just taking your kids from one sports event to another every Saturday.” A woman in the class replied “Yes, but Washington is a competitive place, and I was talking to some friends last week about our coming weekend schedules. Theirs were packed, and ours was lighter. Over the course of the conversation I almost felt guilty that we weren’t doing as much. I hope that we can get support in the church to live our lives with our lighter schedule.”

Never in human history have we been able to measure so much. Medicine can quantify thousands of processes in the human body to the hundredth decimal place. Athletes from the high school to the Olympic stadium measure their performance with the same accuracy. Businesses evaluate every transaction to the penny and every process to the fraction of a second. They also measure outcomes, such as what happens to the crash dummy when the new car crashes into the barrier. Governments measure services and outcomes, and they also evaluate the state of the nation, from how many acres of land is forested to how much sulfur dioxide is in the air in parts per million. They also measure social numbers, from average income to average education, stratifying their analysis to include dozens of personal characteristics such as age, sex, race, location, family size, etc. Communications from speeches to text messages are evaluated from number and type to context of words. Video allows us to measure body language, body position, number of times per hour that we do something, or almost anything else. Never before in history has man been more poked, prodded, and investigated.

This measuring can be very good. Medicine, science, and hundreds of other areas have advanced in the past century precisely because we can measure so much. Few wish to return to the understanding of the ancient world about mathematics and physics. Fewer still wish to return to the knowledge of the Middle Ages in the areas of human anatomy and physiology.

Because we are being measured so much, we measure ourselves. We consider our income, our savings and investments, our housing, our education, our career, and our schedule. As soon as we measure something, we decide which values are good, which values are bad, and then we compete on them. Students compete on grade point average, number of extracurricular activities and position within them. Workers compare themselves to each other by measuring salary, benefit packages, and even number of square feet in one’s office.  Neighbors compete on size of house, attractiveness (“curb appeal”) of house and lawn, and quality of cars. Educators compete on tenure in the organization, number and quality of awards, and number of research dollars and papers. 

Except in racing and bad outcomes, a higher number is generally better. In high school and college in the 1980s people competed over who got the least sleep, presumably because getting less sleep is a surrogate for being more productive. Today my daughter in college tells me that little has changed. The woman in the Sunday School class above had only two events the Saturday before with her two children, compared to the four events that her friend had with her two children.

People make decisions on the basis of our perceived “winning” or “losing” this incessant competition with others. One mother, a self-described feminist, told her daughter that if she wanted to go into health care, she may as well become a physician, because that was the best. Presumably the mother’s idea of “best” was based on average salary, perceived prestige, and control. What the daughter wanted, however, was to deliver babies in the developing world. Rather than training for a decade and then having to pay off a whopping debt, her daughter decided to buck the social tide and become a nurse midwife. To her credit, the mother was elated.

Because we measure so much we have come to value things that we can measure more highly than things that we cannot. Making $200 at work in one day is seen as being better than making $100 at work in the same day, even if the higher pay comes at the cost of less personal satisfaction. Both are seen as better than making no money at all, often caring for children or infirm parents. Perhaps that is why Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney, the wife of the 2012 Republican Presidential candidate and stay-at-home-mother of five, hadn’t “worked a day in her life.” Did she mean that work without money has no value? I doubt it, for surely she values the years of unpaid labor that her family devoted to her when she was growing up.

Our perception that easily measureable things are more important than poorly measurable things comes up in day to day life. At the end of a long day when my wife and I get a few minutes to chat, she recounts the homework that she helped our children with, the tasks around the house, and the errands that she ran. Many days I can only respond with emails answered and meetings attended. I get a measureable amount of money and she does not, but whose work is really more important? Perhaps our work is equally important, regardless of which can be most easily quantified. Einstein famously said “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Modern man’s mania for counting and evaluating based on numbers has many undesirable results. Having more years of education (i.e. going to college) is generally seen as better than having fewer years, but how often does further education take people away from trades such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electrical work, and others that society needs more than it needs unemployed and indebted PhDs? When do the number of sports and activities detract from building strong families?

Counting mania has other difficulties as well. The Economist reported in February 2014 on a study entitled Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality ( ). The study demonstrated that income inequality between households is increased by gender equality in the workforce. In the 1960s physicians were predominately male and nurses primarily female. Since people tend to marry people who are like them, physicians married nurses. Today with a higher percentage of female physicians, male and female physicians marry each other. Needless to say, the combined income of two physicians is greater than the combined income of one physician and one nurse. Since the female nurse in 1960 was likely to quit work to raise a family, their combined income was even lower. One might think that on average this effect cancels itself out and it would if mating were random. But mating is not random, and the effect persists and even grows over time. Few would argue that two people of equal rank, position, experience, and effectiveness should not receive the same pay, regardless of gender. Few would argue that the best societies are those in which income inequality is maximized. However, in this situation two measureable social goals are mutually opposed. The answer is not to stop measuring, but to decide which is the greater good; a much harder task than not knowing the inequality at all.

Our desire to count everything has implications for national and international development. Early America was not equal; slaves were considered 3/5 of a person under the Constitution and women could not vote at all. Over 200 years of US history it has become a more equal place, but it took time to get there. Developing nations now are pressured to do everything at once. One Afghan leader noted that in rebuilding his country the government had to provide security, good infrastructure, a growing economy, environmental responsibility, and gender, ethnic, and income equality all at the same time. Under the mantra “Justice delayed is justice denied” interest groups push for their agenda, focusing on their preferred metrics measured in their preferred way, exclusive of everything else. Thus the simple act of measuring makes it difficult to get anything done.

My friend in our Bible Fellowship class wanted help resisting the relentless tide of measuring everything and then competing on the results. It is a reasonable request. The best thing we as Christians can do is not to stop measuring but to rank priorities according to God’s scale, not man’s. A corporate executive is no better or worse than a trash collector, regardless of how much money or prestige each has, or doesn’t. A pastor is not necessarily more spiritual than a school teacher. Making $100,000 per year is no better than making $20,000 as long as one’s basic needs are met. The goal is to serve God in the way that He commands, regardless of what the world thinks and what the measurements say. He has made the Body of Christ with different parts, and just like the human body, every part is equally important. In the end, He will give more honor to the less honored parts (1 Corinthians 12:23).

And justice delayed is not justice denied. There is no perfect justice on this earth. If God gave us what we deserve immediately, we would all be condemned. Humans must strive for timely justice, while always remembering that He will ensure that perfect justice is done in His time. If we saw the universe as He does, we would not want it any other way.

We love constructive feedback! Please leave a reply.