Do Society's Yardsticks Really Measure Up? ; Americans' Growing Love of Data Distorts True Picture of Society, Sociologists Say

Article excerpt

Ever since man began carving up life up into units called time, the urge to measure has been nonstop: calendars, clocks, yardsticks, birthdays, GPAs, and consumer price indexes.

Yet Americans are in an unrivaled acceleration right now in the use of indexes, barometers, and other numerical snapshots to judge their collective well-being, say a number of social scientists.

From the executive suite to the lunch wagon, when Americans talk these days they zero in on a handful of seminal questions.

Where is the Nasdaq today? The Dow? The GDP?

How are our children doing, based on standardized tests and SAT scores?

And what are the polls saying about who will be the next president?

Some social scientists and theologians worry about what this all means. They say American society may be missing the important things that aren't, or can't be, measured in bite-size nuggets.

Further, there is concern that these measurements become goals, rather than rough indicators of society's progress.

"Our sense of well-being is driven more and more by these proxies," says Jim Koch, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University in California. "We're living in a period of hyperchange," and there is a tendency to want to oversimplify, he adds. "The risk is that they become ends in and of themselves."

Nonetheless, few doubt the trend is accelerating.

Gone are the days when a Federal Reserve move on interest rates or the daily performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average or Nasdaq resonated only within the rarefied circles of finance companies and wealthy investors.

Today, with an ever-greater share of American households invested in stocks, there is an unprecedented thirst for economic data and a feeling of vulnerability to the daily gyrations of the market.

And the horizon looks full of more data and measurements.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," says Stewart Brand, a director of the Global Business Network and author of "The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility." Mr. Brand says the computer age's avalanche of information has made data bites more available to more people than ever before, and set a model of quantifying everything.

At the same time, technology seems to have turned daily life into a sped-up hamster wheel, giving rise to the popular phrase, living on "Internet time."

This seemingly accelerated pace of daily life, experts speculate, is creating a culture with great trust in synthesized data and a desire for instant results, both of which are reflected in the growing use and reliance on numerical indices.

But the picture of society that emerges from prominent statistical measurements is deceptive, says Marc Miringoff, a social scientist at Fordham University in New York. "It lacks any wider social context."

While acknowledging that society "is probably overdoing it" when it comes to measurements, Dr. Miringoff has added one of his own. His Index of Social Health aims to give a fuller picture of society than its economic data. And it contains some surprises for those paying attention. For instance, US "social health," including factors like housing affordability and healthcare, has only begun to improve during the past five years of this decade-long economic expansion. …