David Boyle

Facing up to the tyranny of numbers

Resurgence, March/April 2001

It's a strange thought, in these days of measurement, statistics and league tables, but even two and a half centuries ago, nobody had the foggiest idea what the population of the country was.

But when the idea of a census was first proposed to Parliament in 1753, by Hellfire Club member Thomas Potter MP, the idea of measuring people - now so popular with New Labour - was thrown out through the efforts of just one man.

Almost single-handedly, York MP William Thornton mustered enough votes to defeat the idea in a series of bravura performances that stand as a contemporary critique of statistical thinking.  In the first division, he was the only MP voting against.  By the time it reached the Lords, he had so stoked up the opposition that they threw it out.

His main arguments were that this was a back door attempt to bring in nasty French institutions like the police, and that official counting was a pointless activity that changed nothing and undermined the privacy of true Englishmen. 

"Can it be pretended, that by the knowledge of our number, or our wealth, either can be increased?" he asked fellow MPs.  "And what purpose will it answer to know where the kingdom is crowded, and where it is thin, except we are to be driven from place to place as graziers do their cattle?  If this be intended, let them brand us at once; but while they treat us like oxen and sheep, let them not insult us with the name of men."

It is easy to laugh from two and a half centuries later, in these days when we count almost everything.  Yet there was something rather noble about Thornton's defence - bone-headedly English for all that in his powdered wig, yet strangely reminiscent of today's Euro-sceptics. 

So we didn't get a census until the Napoleonic Wars, and Sweden got in first.  Now of course, we are branded people, just as old Thornton predicted,

 in a planet completely overwhelmed by numbers and calculation.

There are personal numbers to be handled each day, about investments, journey times, bank machines and credit cards.  There are professional figures at work, in the form of targets, statistics, workforce percentages and profit forecasts.  As consumers, we are counted and aggregated according to every purchase we make.

Every time we are exposed to the media, there is a positive flood of statistics controlling and interpreting the world, developing each truth, simplifying each problem.  "Being a man is unhealthy," said the front page of the Evening Standard recently, adding - like every similar newspaper article about statistics - the word: 'Official'. 

As if we had been wondering about the truth all these years and, thanks to the counters, we now know.  As if the figures are so detached that there is no arguing with them.

But of course we keep arguing.  Just as the government keeps arguing despite its battery of benchmarks, quality indicators and league tables, as it struggles to hold back chaos like King Canute in front of the waves. 

We take our collective pulses 24 hours a day with the use of statistics.  We understand life that way, though somehow the more figures we use, the great truths still seem to slip through our fingers.  Despite all that calculating, and all that numerical control, we feel as ignorant as ever.

There are already six times as many people employed in accountancy and financial services than there were in the early 1950s, and that's just a small part of the new auditing and number-crunching industry.  The government has set itself 8,000 new targets at the last count.  So many people will soon be employed monitoring that there will be nobody left to do the actual work.

Yet the technocrats still believe this is the only way of controlling the world.  Are your schools not performing as well as they should?  Then measure their results.  Are you worried about the performance of a local council, a company, and great institution, a hospital?  Send in the auditors, set some standards as benchmarks.  You don't trust the professionals?  Summarise their decisions in number form, send in the cost-benefit experts and keep your beady eye on them. 

The trouble is that we are actually not in control.  The more we count, the more the truth slips through our fingers and the government targets skew the efforts to improve hospitals and schools - as if all that mattered was class sizes and waiting lists.

We discuss the targets and argue about the figures endlessly, but for some reason we don't discuss the way that obsessive measuring also impoverishes us.

It does so because it tries to eliminate trust.  We don't need it any more now we can measure.  We lose small, trusting institutions because big ones are easier to standardise and measure.

It does so because it tells us nothing about what causes what, yet undermines our ability to use our own judgement and intuition.

And it does so by blinding us.  Things that can't be measured - love, creativity, awe, religion, altruism - get forgotten by professionals who ridicule them. 

We are now in a world that is designed to be measured, that praises and promotes people with hard measuring skills, and downgrades those with human imaginative ones. 

This is one area of life where the feminist revolution has not even sparked.  We are increasingly silenced by the number-crunchers - unable to make up our minds or take control of the future in the increasing cacophony of measurements and statistics.

Obviously there are times when we simply have to try measuring the unmeasurable.  The danger comes when we do nothing else, or when we really believe the numbers are measuring something real. 

The hopeless dream of number-crunchers is still to reach the perfect objective non-political decision, to take all that human prejudice and error out of politics or management.  It is a dream from the foundation of the London Statistical Society whose first rule of conduct was "to exclude all opinions". 

It also goes right back to the pioneering French statisticians who believed that counting things could abolish politics altogether and usher in a reign of facts.  It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now - even if we wanted it to be. 

We laugh at Dickens' ridiculous character of Thomas Gradgrind and his obsession with facts and nothing but facts.  Yet here we are surrounded by them.

And look what's coming next.  One company in Virginia makes its employees wear coloured name tags based on a numerical categorisation of their personalities.  There are British companies working on the idea of microchip implants for their workforce to measure their timekeeping.

Worse, British Telecom's Soul Catcher project aims to find a way of digitising every sense and experience in a lifetime so that it can all be held on floppy disk.  Or, to be precise, 7,142,857,142,860,000 of them.

Panasonic has developed a 'smart' fridge that measures what you eat and orders more milk when you need it.  Matsushita has developed a 'smart' toilet that measures your weight, fat ratio, temperature, protein and glucose levels every time you give it something to work on.  Their VitalSigns medical kit then sends this data automatically to your local clinic - probably the last thing they want.

Measurement as obsessively practised by our society is about standardisation and control.  It is the by-product of empire, but not the kind of empires we were used to historically.  This is our empire.  The measurements are a reflection of what we believe and what we fear the most. 

We collect them because we no longer trust politicians, professionals and natural processes.  We insist that their ways, methods and progress are measured every step of the way.

Right back in the 1830s, the philosopher Georg Friedrich Pohl used the metaphor of understanding a journey through beautiful landscape and fascinating people by using a train timetable.  The figures were accurate enough, but it left out most of the experience. 

It's not surprising that our institutions are being built in this image too.  We will soon have a workforce recruited by categorising aspects of their personalities on a scale of 1 to 10.  We will have our nannies graded for their caring abilities on the basis of some kind of checklist. 

We will have children who can pass exams but have no judgement.  We will measure all our institutions by numerical 'best practice' standards and wonder vaguely why nobody innovates any more.  And we will have doctors who translate our symptoms into numbers before feeding them into the computer.  We will be turning ourselves ever so slowly into machines.

What can we do about it?  We could try measuring more and we could try measuring less.  In fact, we can probably do both.


Measuring more destroys the tyranny of the bottom line.  It undermines the great importance of the big number.  It punctures the pomposity of the men in white coats or the men in grey suits.  Local indicators, ethical auditing - it doesn't add up.  That's the power of it.

But we could also try measuring less.  Good professional doctors or development economists will tell you that they can know very quickly what is wrong with the patient or economy - but they then have to spend a great deal of public money collecting the figures in order to persuade anybody else. 

Measuring less saves money.  It also requires considerable faith in other people, and that's in very short supply these days.  It means decentralising power.  Most of all it means practising using our imagination and intuition.

Measuring more is the trendy radical solution.  It means handing over the technocratic empires to some kind of democracy, but measuring less is about dismantling the empires altogether.

So let's start the ball rolling.  We need a campaign for Real Knowledge - not just the kind that can be expressed in numbers.  We need calculator-free zones.  I hereby promise to go out and burn mine tomorrow.









title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers