One of the promises of digital life is that more data can help us make better choices. But we also need to consider the economic and human costs of putting a Fitbit on every aspect of being human.
All around us are movements to quantify and optimize more parts of our lives. Financial service providers are cracking numbers to judge who should do that qualify for a home mortgage. Companies like Apple and Amazon want make people healthier by giving us and our doctors more information about our sleep, heart rate and other aspects of our bodies. Some courts use software to help determine prison sentences by assessing the likelihood that a person will commit future crimes.
And as my colleagues Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram described in a article published this weekmore workplaces quantify how employees spend their time.
By monitoring down to the minute what people are doing on their computers and in interactions with colleagues or customers, companies seek to measure the effectiveness of call center agents, finance professionals and even hospice care chaplainsand to determine how they spend their time.
Productivity techniques that relied on data were popularized on factory floors in the 20th century and were later used for workers such as truck drivers and Amazon warehouse packersbut they have also spread to office jobs.
We see the appeal. What’s the point of technology if we don’t inform our choices or take human error out of the equation?
At work, as the New York Times survey indicated, people eager to quantify their labor said it made them aware of how much time they were wasting and provided a better measure of their efforts. Hard workers may find it attractive to have technology – sometimes derisively called “bossware” or boss software – quantify the slackers versus the diligent employees. That can sometimes be elusive in a job, whether you’re working as a cashier in the supermarket or… a technology chief executive.
If you are familiar with the ways exercise is fun basketball and football Having embraced statistics-intensive decision-making to judge athletes and dictate strategy, this is “Moneyball” for desk jockeys.
But Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist and author of the book “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World,” is a skeptic that technology can or should help us to free us from the messiness of human decisions.
Yes, it’s useful for computers to sift through vast amounts of financial data to detect potentially fraudulent credit card payments and for mortgage lenders to analyze whether they are disproportionately lending to white homeowners and using that information to change the system.
But in many cases, data and people have to work together.
Broussard told me that there has been a technology fantasy for decades that computers can judge workers or issue fair prison sentences. But most aspects of life, including being good at your job, are not mathematical equations.
“There’s no point in using this kind of monitoring practices,” Broussard said. “They are not suited to the way people actually work. Humans are not machines.”
Broussard gave an example of group activities that people do at school and at work. We know that some people put in more effort than others. That may feel unfair or annoying, but there’s a reason teamwork persists. People have different and complementary skills that can make the sum greater than any individual contribution. Working together often makes work better and more fun, and a computer score can’t necessarily measure that.
Also, she said, innovation happens when people challenge conventional ways of doing things, but that is discouraged by systems programmed to steer everyone towards an imagined ideal of the status quo. People tend to believe it’s smart for others to be checked and judged with data, she said, but hate it when it happens to them.
I asked Jodi what she’d learned in her months of reporting on whether software might one day be able to better assess the value of people at work or lead them to more fruitful ways to spend their energy. She said for the most part, employees don’t believe the full spectrum of what they do can be quantified.
“Maybe in the future someone will invent ‘bossware’ — that is, management technology — that will really gain the trust of the employees,” Jodi said. “But the productivity tracking technology we wrote about in this story often evokes anger and resentment because it just doesn’t match the reality of what it means to do great work.”
Before we go…
TikTok is now in the spotlight. My colleague Tiffany Hsu wrote about worries that TikTok has become one blooming place for falsehoods, including information related to high-stakes elections around the world.
And in Washington, lawmakers and regulators are displeased with the lack of progress in monitoring TikTok and other Chinese apps that could leak data to Beijing, my colleague David McCabe reported. (I’ll have more about TikTok in tomorrow’s newsletter.)
Government-approved non-prescription hearing aids: My colleague Christina Jewett reported that the Food and Drug Administration has cleared a path for a new category of vetted hearing aids that people can buy themselves, as we do with drugstore glasses. I’m curious to see how this new consumer products market develops, and I’m aware that it took decades for over-the-counter eyewear to develop into what they are today.
From On Tech in 2021: Over-the-counter hearing aids have the potential to: showing government and technology companies at their best.
Golf carts shouldn’t be just for golf. David Zipper, a transportation policy expert, wrote in Slate that many communities should: make way for golf carts because they can be a useful, affordable and climate-friendly transport technology for the future. It worked for Peachtree City, Ga., Zipper in detail.
In other transport technology: My colleague Cade Metz explained that self-driving car services, including a planned expansion of a Lyft service in Las Vegas, rarely do cars operate independently of human control.
Hug for this
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you want us to discover. You can reach us at email@example.com.