Book Review: Metric Power by David Beer

Review by Rolland Munro

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York and is a co-editor at Theory, Culture & SocietyMetric Power is now available in paperback (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and his next book, The Data Gaze, will be published by Sage later in 2018.

This week I advised my son, a Head Chef in London, to put some more numbers into his performance review, only to find one of my publications for the next REF, praised for its originality, precision of argument and contribution to sociology, is marked down by an internal review to 3 stars – on the basis that a harsh person on the panel might feel it lacked numbers.

Whether thrilling people with food, or trying to advance thinking, many of us live in worlds where value is accorded through forms of metrification. Why does this matter? In this ground-breaking study, Dave Beer quotes Espeland and Stevens (2008: 411): in ‘a world saturated with numbers, it is easy to take the work of quantification for granted’. Yet the vital issue is not one of numbers becoming over-familiar. The more crucial and numbing effect on thought is how the reliance on numbers has brought about a culture quick to marginalise judgement and dismissive of any verbal statement not backed up by numbers.

As such, it is unsurprising to find a key refrain in Beer’s exposition of metric power is that ‘what counts’ is only what can be counted. His variety of repetitions on this rifgathers up, however, a deep irony as he further develops his themes. For while an aim is certainly to help readers grasp how central metrics are to the ordering, division and construction of societies, it is far from his mission to proselytise quantification. Crucially, for Beer, as it was for Mary Douglas, it is to classifications and categories that social scientists must look if we are to get behind the numbers. Yet even here – insofar as Beer is repositioning numbers to that role of acting as intermediaries in the exercise of power – neither does he offer solace to less numerate souls. For integral to his idea of metric power is the very jointness of the enterprises of quantification and political manoeuvring.

Dave Beer’s aim is to unzip metric power. This is not so much to show how number has come to dominate societies through their infiltration into almost every walk of life. Other volumes, notably those by Porter, Hacking and Rose, have already done much to draw out this scenario. So Beer not only sets out to explain how this constant exposure to metrics means that almost all that we say and do is governed, managed, and corralled by metrics. Through his three key middle chapters, he goes on to expose in turn the ‘relations between measurement, circulation and possibility’. In explicating these critical relations he makes a profound contribution to understanding the actual ways in which metric power governs us and our ‘world-making’. Indeed, along the way, he gives considerable insight into the conditions by which projects, like modernisation and neo-liberalism, both surf and reinforce the requirement on us to number.

The chapter on measurement is the first of Beer’s deep thrusts into metric power, his careful and scholarly incisions demonstrating why the topic is of such major importance today. Taking as his principal guides the aforementioned Porter and Hacking, Beer steers a path between a literature that on the one hand too quickly attributes inherent powers to metrics – as if numbers can speak or stand for themselves – and a plethora of writings on the other that avoid in-depth analysis by glibly talking of neoliberalism and markets. His ability to summarise the cogency of their arguments and take forward their key insights is truly remarkable. Well-versed researchers and serious undergraduates alike will enjoy the gems Beer excavates out of the work of these notables.

Specifically, in linking up the ever-evolving invention of categories to the ‘making up of persons’, Hacking offers the critical edge. Where Porter (1995) argues for metrics taking on a ‘moral value’, Hacking theorises a shift in knowledge from determinism to probability. In his seeing probability as the building block for an entirely new style of reasoning for science, Hacking’s (1990) thesis thus offers a vital historical analysis of what he calls the ‘taming of chance’. Critically, however, whereas Hacking argues probability to be ‘the philosophical success story in the first half of the twentieth century’, Beer moves on in later chapters to put together a different and more telling insight into metric power.

Significantly, the chapter on measurement gains from the work of Espeland on commensuration, particularly in her study with Stevens on the enormous ‘social and intellectual investment’ that goes into creating conditions amenable to the making of comparisons. A vital touchstone for Beer, however, turns out to be Eldon’s (2006) Speaking Against Number, which deploys Martin Heidegger’s work to explore the ‘interrelation of number and politics’. Giving a fresh turn to the refrain of what counts is what can be counted, Beer restates Heidegger’s (1998: 235) idea that ‘calculation refuses to let anything appear except that which is calculable’: ‘to exist is to be calculable, suggesting that those things that are not calculable [ie measurable] are marginalised or expelled from thought’ (p.56). This emphasis overlaps with Amoore’s (2006) idea of calculation creating ‘lines of sight’.

This crucial initial investigation closes with a return to the work of Foucault on biopolitics, integrating this with Ajana (2013) on biometrics. In bringing up the way in which much measurement, and hence government, centres today around the body, particularly through the expansion of internet giants like Facebook and algorithms in search engines like Google, what Beer seeks to establish is the extent to which the body has been long a focus of calculation and measurement. To Beer, the issues here have not substantially changed, however magnified they now appear with the advent of big data.

It is in the following chapter on circulation, that his exploration of metric power really comes alive. Here Beer is on home territory, developing themes around the politics of circulation addressed in his earlier book on popular culture. Noting how metrics vary in terms of visibility and impact, he points to their circulation taking very different pathways as they get integrated into practices, decisions and procedures. Once ‘repeated in other assemblages and circulated as such’ (Desrosieres, 1998:3) metrics take on a life of their own with their original stories and narratives stripped away and replaced by new ones. As Espeland (2015: 56) explains:

…as these new forms of knowledge move out and are re-appropriated or resisted by those being evaluated, they elicit new narratives, new stories about what they mean…

This interplay between the erasure and invocation of narratives ‘turns the social world back to a story-less husk’ that enables metrics to circulate whenever opportunities arise to apply new or ready-packaged meanings upon them (p. 79-80). There is little doubt that many institutions, in the throes of what laughably is called culture change, have been quick to take up to such opportunities to exploit employees in their attempt to squeeze out even more gain.

As Beer argues, it is not enough to be aware that data about our lives is open to data mining. We need to understand how these data are sorted, filtered and directed. For Beer, investigation here begins with the objects and infrastructure through which culture is enacted. Only once we understand the systems, like Facebook, that afford data collection can we then move on to the next stage, that of the archiving of data. This in turn asks ‘how data are organised, how the data is tagged and classified, who the gatekeepers are, and how the content can be searched and retrieved’ (p. 87-88). Beer’s next move is to consider how the data then gets incorporated back into everyday life: this includes understanding how algorithms filter data and shape encounters, the ways ‘people are now playing with data’ say through APIs, learn what is hot in cultural trends and, finally, think of the many ways that the body is implicated in the circulation of data (p. 88).

This chapter on circulation thus picks up on relevant material, such as Mirowski’s on neoliberalism and Wendy Brown’s future-proofing of the self, but the highlight is perhaps Jodi Dean’s ‘communicative capitalism’, in which she argues that ‘social media can give the impression of providing a voice whilst covering up for the fact that the voice is not heard’ (p.94). Proposing three ‘animating fantasies of communication capitalism (abundance, participation, and wholeness), Dean’s (2009) arguments are ‘complex and provocative’, but at their centre is the charge that circulating metrics are neither enlightening nor empowering. Dominance of voice, registered by numbers of friends or views, can all too easily act as an indicator of who should be listened to, with challenges to such matters just adding noise to the circulations (p.95).

Towards the end of this chapter, Beer comments on Frank Pasquale’s use of ‘black boxes’ to evoke the sense that we know little about the infrastructures and the ‘increasingly enigmatic technologies’ that underpin our lives: how these operate inversely to the erosion of the privacy of individuals and underpin the ‘escalated protection of the secrecy of commercial organisations’ (p. 107). While Beer contrasts black-boxing with Ronald E. Day’s (2014) emphasis on indexing and documentation, both bring into view the ‘gaping spectre of the algorithm’ (p. 109) and emphasise how these promote opacity and secrecy. For Day, these self-organising systems are ‘mobile and contingent’ and evade traditional top-down taxonomic structures (p.111). Crucially, such changes allow centralisation and decentralisation to act together, allowing agency and discretion to be subverted or eroded.

Entitled ‘Possibility’, the third of Beer’s key chapters focuses on the elusive ways that these circulating measurements come to intervene in the performance of the social world. After looking at the relations of possibility and inequality, Beer examines the links between possibility and visibility. The trump card is the return he then makes to Hacking’s work in Chapter 2 by exploring the differences between probability and possibility. The insights here are thought-provoking and profound and cover how metrics contribute to ‘imagined futures’ that are then used to inform decision-making.

This theme of ‘imagined futures’ deserves further comment. Insofar as Hacking demonstrates how numbers provide us with accounts of normalcy, we can all find our actions to be guided by the numbers in recursive ways that reinforce normalcy and so bury themselves ‘into the flesh of the social world’ (p. 132). As Hacking notes such feedback loops are peculiar to the social world and makes its measurement quite different from the physical world. Such matters allow transparency and secrecy to go hand in hand as well give rise to the paradox of notions of fairness being used to justify the production and maintenance of inequality (p. 135). Do point this paradox out to your Head of Department or Dean the next time you have to sit and listen to these wriggles in their discourse.

Relatedly and additionally, as Day (2014) notes, data is presented too often as immediate and factual: ‘the data says . . ’; ‘the data shows us . . ’. While it is no doubt well understood how such manoeuvres close up debate and jettison opinion, it is still hard to argue against them – the point being that data is seen to be powerful whereas human agency is seen as ‘potentially unreliable, inefficient and limited in the depth of its analytical gaze and impartiality (p. 136). As Porter (1995) notes ‘quantification is a technology of distance’, making such judgements appear ‘hyper-rational, fair, and indisputably logical’ (p. 137-138).

The upshot of these inverting relations between value and values (see also Skeggs 2014) is that metrics is not just about ‘capturing’ (or even colonising), it is also, often, about ‘instructing’ (p.138). It is for this reason that Day (2014, italics original) argues that ‘governance using documentary systems must turn the potential into the possible, and so fit the person within logical systems of representation’. Scaling all this up to include share-dealing, algorithmic border-crossing security, insurance pricing and customer prioritisation, Beer shows how ‘infrastructurally defined visibility’ leads to metrics driving ‘what is seen’ and therefore ‘what is likely to happen’ (p. 148).

As Beer says, we have a culture of metrics and a cultural metrics: there is both a cultural interest in numbers and culture that is shaped and populated with numbers (p. 149, emphasis original). This leads on to discussion about how biometrics make the body visible and to argument about Pugliese’s (2010) ‘calculatory grids’, where identification procedures of biometric technologies are inscribed by tacit moralising assumptions, normative criteria and typological presuppositions. According to Pugliese, these split and fragment the hold between body, subject and identity.

In closing this chapter Beer sees Louise Amoore’s (2013) work as offering a particularly compelling case for understanding what she calls the ‘politics of possibility’. The crucial shift is a move from the use of statistics and metrics in the analysis of probabilities towards their use in the analysis of possibilities. The power of data rests, in her view, on its ability to tell organisations what is possible (p. 157). This leads to a proliferation of ‘consulting’, by which Amoore does not mean actions by consultants but rather as a way of thinking, ordering, calculating and acting in the world. Anticipation, and visions of the future from which it is drawn, now shape choices and outcomes. Where Eldon sees limiting factors in calculability, Amoore’s limiting factors are to be found in the projection of possibilities (p. 162).

It is hard not to find an incisive sharpness in all this that escaped much of my own early attempts to capture how the combination of agenda-setting and numbers compromises the present. This said, I fear on this occasion Beer goes too quickly on to suggest that ‘the projected horizons of possibility produced by data and algorithmic systems ‘come to define what is actualised and what becomes a reality’ (p. 162). As powerful and pervasive as they are, algorithms are not the only agent to be considered in the formulation of what (after Alfred Schutz) Pitsis et al (2003) call the ‘future perfect’. For instance, Ben Anderson (2010, p. 783) also argues how the future is always being made present, but explains that this happens by its being ‘constantly embodied, experienced, told, narrated, imagined, performed, wished, planned, (day)dreamed, symbolized and sensed’.

The protagonist in much of Beer’s thinking on metrics and power is Foucault. Whenever he risks losing the reader in the morass of arguments put forward by other academics, Beer looks to Foucault to help him make a clearing. In drawing specifically on the later work of Foucault on competition, rather than his better-known earlier work on power. Here Beer surfaces such telling insights as Foucault’s (2008: 120) dictum that competition is not a natural game between individuals and behaviours, but a ‘formal game between inequalities’. It is should be made clear, however, that Beer is not simply acting as an acolyte of Foucault. Rather he is reading Foucault for inspiration and, in so doing, he stays true to Foucault’s counsel about his own work being sketchy and provisional.

Given my long ethnographic study of how the advent of management has been integral to a reshaping society and culture throughout the twentieth century, I was surprised to see so little attention paid to such themes as modernisation, little mention of self-constructing systems like money, and a virtual void on culture-shaping technologies like accounting. Yet, insomuch as these matters are caught up implicitly within Beer’s general thesis of metric power, there was a lesson here for me, and my own critique, that much can be said, and much change captured, without explicit reference to these vectors. Others, likewise, might argue that insufficient attention is given to class, race or gender, but this would be to ignore the careful attention Beer gives to inequality throughout.

A small but potentially important criticism is that Beer, like many of the commentators he draws on, relies much on the notion of decision – without noting how the canard of decision-making is as much an outcome and effect of Western rationalism and quantification. Am I really making a decision to break off writing now and make a cup of coffee? Do we really think that the CEO of a large company made the ‘decision’ of what their next product will be? Or that it is the Vice Chancellor of your university who makes the decision to improve NSS scores? A useful alternative term – whose more familiar use ironically gets at the heart of what metrification has accomplished – is Barry Barnes’s (1988) qualitative use of ‘calculation’. In capturing the act of going one way rather than another, Barnes’s use of ‘to calculate’ admits an element of rational choice, but without insisting on the need for quantification.

I have not, until now, mentioned my favourite chapter, which Beer adds as a ‘Coda’ at the end of the book. Importantly, this brings the notion of affect directly into the topic of metrics and starts what promises to be a future book. So to sum up, Metric Power is that rare beast that is at once magisterial and a work in progress. As an incisive research volume it has all the makings of a classic, a book for every academic to read, absorb and worry. As a clear, compact and comprehensible text it should also be on the required reading list for every sociological honours course. Beer’s sensitivity to his sources allows him to assemble a coherent picture of current forms of dominance out of the crumbling of western knowledge. More than this, however, his insight into contemporary life and his enviable grasp of issues has enabled him to put forward an immensely important thesis on culture.

Rolland Munro is Professor of Philosophy of Organisation, University of Leicester and Honorary Professor, Department of Sociology, University of York.

References

Ajana, B. (2013) Governing through Biometrics: The biopolitics of identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Amoore, L. (2006) Biometric Borders: Governing mobilities in the war on terror. Political Geography 25(3): 336-351.

Amoore, L. (2013) The Politics of Possibility: Risk and security beyond possibility. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anderson, B. (2010). Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. Progress in Human Geography (34): 777– 798.

Barnes, B. (1988) The Nature of Power. Cambridge: Polity Press. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Beer, D. (2013) Popular Culture and New Media: The politics of circulation.

Pitsis, T., Clegg, S. R., Marosszeky, M., & Rura-Polley, T. (2003). Constructing the Olympic dream: Managing innovation through the future perfect. Organization Science (14): 574–590.

Brown, W. (2015) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. New York: Zone Books.

Davies, W. (2014) The Limits of Neoliberalism. London: Sage.

Day, R.E. (2014) Indexing It All: The subject in the age of documentation, information and data. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Dean, J. (2009) Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative capitalism and left politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Desrosieres, A. (1998) The Politics of Numbers: A history of statistical reasoning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elden, S. (2006) Speaking Against Number: Heidegger, language and the politics of calculation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Espeland, W. (2015) Narrating numbers. In R. Rottenburg, S.E. Merry, S.J. Park & J. Mugler (eds) The World of Indicators: The making of governmental knowledge through quantification, pp. 56-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Espeland, W. and Stevens, M.L. (2008) A Sociology of Quanification. European Journal of Sociology, 49(3): 401-436.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hacking, I. (1990) The Taming of Chance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1998) Pathways, ed W. McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pasquale, F. (2015) The Black Box Society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Porter, T.M. (1995) Trust in Numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pugliese, J. (2010) Biometrics: Bodies, technologies, biopolitics. London: Routledge.

Skeggs, B. (2014) Value beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital? The British Journal of Sociology, 65(1): 1-20.

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