We make our It’s best to brush aside the pesky swarm of requests that overshadow every restaurant meal, plumber visit, plane ride, begging for points, stars, likes, thumbs (or middle fingers), if only because they gnaw at our sanity.
The true cost, however, is more than an annoyance. Misunderstanding measurement misunderstands understanding itself. The ubiquitous, incessant observation drowns out knowledge with noise, drowns out the information we really need to figure out how things work, what’s going on, what we’re doing, what’s really important.
First, we must be suspicious of any measurement that does not recognize “what versus what”. Counting the number of deaths from Covid without comparing it to the prevalence of the virus in the population does not give us the slightest idea of its mortality, how many people are recovering or delayed in “long Covid”, or even what variations are “trending”. We cannot know these numbers, as no one else counts them. The denominators disappeared again.
Or to take a simpler case: you can measure the length of a carpet by comparing it to the marks on a tape measure if someone—like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—tracks what a foot is (so to speak). One type of foot was declared obsolete at exactly midnight on January 1, 2023. The standard “international foot” is 0.3048 meters, although it is actually measured in wavelengths of light. Whatever the version, “foot” refers to a known relationship, like diameter to a circle or space to time. All things considered, he’s solid.
In contrast, most measurements are “impossible,” Lockhart writes. “We hope to measure only the simplest objects.”
And nothing we measure is simple, for the simple reason that everything is connected to everything else, and any single measure contains a multitude of players, a cosmos of considerations. Take, for example, the problems that physicists had in understanding “motion” before realizing its complexity. It was not so much a thing as a family of moving parts: speed, acceleration, momentum, force.
Like everyone else, I constantly evaluate my status, how much I have time. Against your younger self? Against other people my age? Contrary to society’s expectations? Assessed by my chronological age? My biological age? In a recent dance class, I compared myself to other students and placed myself at the bottom. I asked the teacher if I was out of my mind, “Oh, you’re better than last time,” she said. Indeed, a low bar. Regression to the mean tells me that if I was the worst in class the first week, then there is only one way: move up! The improvement my teacher saw was a mere possibility.
But I wonder: if a student starts the semester at the top and turns in a mediocre paper in the middle of the semester, can I give him a grade? Am I rewarding a mediocre student who later turns in his work with an A? In all likelihood, probably.
Aging is accelerating motivation, and perhaps the need for evaluation. Someone is watching their waist, someone is counting steps, and someone seems to be peeling off to briefcases. Many people compare themselves to others. I think this makes no sense, since we know that “feeling good,” like wealth, is relative and personal. Friends who associate with rich people feel much poorer than I do.