Why Should Data Determine Who We Are?
Steffen Mau’s “Quantified Self” explains how we can reclaim agency over our digital lives
The Chinese government intends to create a social credit system by the year 2020. Data about the behaviour of each individual from all spheres of life shall be collected, evaluated, and transformed into a personal score. Consumption, traffic offences, activities on the internet, employment contracts, performance ratings both at school and at work, conflicts with one’s landlord, and even the behavior of one’s children will count towards the individual’s score. This system, which aims to reflect an authentic and accurate overall picture of the human being, is not voluntary — every Chinese citizen will be registered. The Chinese government thereby intends to reward sincerity and create in their populace “a mentality of honesty” (Mau 2017: 9; citations are from the German edition of Mau’s text).
Sounds like a dystopia — so unlike we who live in the Western world, right? I am not so sure.
At Bard College Berlin I have been taking a class entitled “Social Change and the German Public Sphere” led by Ulrike Wagner. We have discussed excerpts from Steffen Mau’s book The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social in which the sociologist argues that current trends reflect a society of stars and scores, ranks and ratings (c.f., Mau 2017: 10). You might think China’s social credit system extreme, but Mau identifies the very same structures at work in many of our everyday behaviour and practices.
Look around you. Pick up your phone and check your social media account. How many likes did you get on your last shared picture? How many friends and followers can you boast about? One might argue that these numbers don’t really matter and don’t define your self-worth. But Mau argues that comparable quantified data necessarily creates depictions of status. When we constantly document our activities and integrate them into a rating system, we lose the freedom to act independently of expectations and evaluation. We become performers whether we like it or not, investing in an artificial production of ourselves (c.f., Mau 2017: 13). Since we compete with others, we constantly feel the pressure to become better — and to become better faster.
But to become better than whom? Mau argues that self-optimization is not the only result of quantifying the self; these processes lead to a universalization of competition. The ostensible objectivity of data makes even the most private matters — things like hobbies, family relations, and habits — measurable. The sharing of successes after doing sports on an app, for example, already creates a ranking. The published result puts other users under pressure, “motivating” them to surpass the score. But why do human beings have the drive to beat others? Mau asserts that comparison with the surroundings enhances performance because low self-esteem can be compensated and improved through “better achievements” (Mau 2017: 54).
The obligation is on us to identify these patterns in our own lives. We must consider whether and how the quantification of our performance, and the competition it stirs, determines our actions. The metrical representation of qualitative effort can deeply manipulate our ideas, values, and motivation. For those of us who are students, this quantification of performance can be crystallized in one word: grades. Considering grades as the quantification of all the of qualitative contributions we students make to our universities and in our classrooms, the inherently meaningful pathway of education can easily be reduced to the accumulation of numerical evaluations. One’s further possibilities in life — and if Mau is right therefore our social status as well — are determined by the acquisition of a high score within a particular educational system.
There is something dangerous about this growing tendency to measure our performance in seemingly-objective numbers. The danger is that these quantifications do not merely display facts — they (re)construct our understanding of what is desirable; of the valuable. Mau calls this the construction of “social worthiness” (Mau 2017: 14). Noting that our social worthiness is, in fact, constructed can help us see that we ought not be shocked by an official social credit system — we’ve already established one invisibly.
After all, what do our grades truly reflect about our intelligence and ability to critically engage with the world? What do numbers of interested persons on dating websites reveal about whether we are worthy of being loved or of loving? How do Instagram likes create a scale to evaluate human beauty? And, most importantly, while we surrender to certain structures of quantification, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, how do we maintain agency and free ourselves of expectations and socially constructed categories that falsely determine our worth? In other words, who is it that shapes our desires? And how can we reclaim our agency?
First, we can detox. Over eight days. At least this is what Tactical Tech, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of technology, human rights, and civil liberties, advised us to do when our class visited their Berlin offices.
In order not to drown in the waves of the data world, we were given a Data Detox Kit. Upon opening the rescue package this is what you find first:
Once you’ve detoxed, the next steps focus on sensitizing the individual to the data he or she leaves behind online, including all the information that phones, apps, browsers, and social media save about the user. The goal is to reclaim one’s digital agency by becoming aware of his or her digital identity, including how it was created.
The Data Detox Kit shows that every change begins with an awareness of and about the self. One day after I typed out the above questions, I came across this beautiful Geo Wissen magazine cover emblazoned with the words Zeit für die Seele (“Time for the Soul”) in a store window at U-Bahnhof Osloer Straße. Ironically, I only took a look because there were 11 minutes left to wait for the 150 bus to Buch. Being caught up in the structures of time and work again, this magazine served as a wonderful reminder to pause and reflect. Standing on the platform I found myself asking: How do I organize my day? How do I deal with the growing pressure to perform? What causes the mechanization of human beings and how can I free myself of an alien systematization of my being? In all of my acting, making, doing, do I give myself space to simply be; to consciously break with the invisible force of constant expectations, duties, and work?
Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
I read the Geo Wissen magazine while waiting for the bus to Buch. It contained rich and captivating articles about rediscovering the self and the world by slowing down, by activating the senses and re-centering the self. One of the essays described how hectic-ness, digitalization, and addiction to the internet weighs us down and stands in the way of our feeling fully like ourselves. The articles reminded me that human life consists of more than chains of duties and the constant pressure of perfect performance.
Human beings have the mental-emotional capacity to refuse to be characterized by constructed categories. We don’t have to submit to the quantification of the self and the social. Centering the self again allows us to actively and consciously prioritize where we invest our energy. It is up to us as individuals to decide which channels of investing, creating, and receiving energy are healthy, refreshing, and vital. Further, cultivating consciousness will allow us to redefine our relationship to technology and to reclaim our freedom.
The first book we read in the Core Program at Bard College Berlin was Plato’s Republic. Through the figure of Socrates, Plato reminded us that agency is easily lost. Yet agency is essential if we are to live a conscious life. I would put forward that the first step in winning agency back is to find complete stillness, silent self-reflection in a world that is ever demanding of performances, efforts, and achievements. A conscious self doesn’t contradict an active one. On the contrary, if we embed our ambitions into a self-constructed — and not externally-constructed — system of meaning, if we define worthiness critically and on our own terms, then “human doings” might again become human beings.
The term “human doings” was coined by the psychologist and meditation teacher Dr. Tara Brach. Her teachings combine Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices to cultivate a conscious inner life and to support active engagement with the outer world — a balance many of us so easily lose. Her approach of combining different regional philosophies and practices shows that creating space for the self goes beyond physical territory and temporal spheres. In her lecture The Sacred Pause she describes the need to constantly do some-thing, to define oneself by a constant chain of activity. But human beings, I realize, must come back to themselves and remember to simply be.
In The Metric Society Mau describes how human beings almost necessarily follow the current trends of a society that quantifies major areas of our life. We cannot avoid the fact that our unique being is expressed in comparable data. However, Dr. Brach’s work and the articles in Geo Wissen show that human beings have agency, that we can define our worth ourselves.
The length of the chain of duties and work, the number of our accomplishments, does not define our value. It can even be harmful when we only seek accomplishments in order to please others and forget ourselves. Pausing and reflecting, questioning why and wherein we find meaning, are crucial to rebuilding a healthy relationship with ourselves. And the rest that comes in such pauses does not, in fact, mean inefficiency. It is its own form of healing, of exploration, and of regeneration.
Sarah Nassabieh was born and raised in Berlin and has a Lebanese background. Currently, she studies Humanities, the Arts and Social Thought at Bard College Berlin and writes for the student blog Die Bärliner.