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