“There are three types of lies,” the old saying goes: “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Learning to distrust the supposedly simple mathematical truths of statistics is an essential survival mechanism for navigating our way through advertising promises and endless conflicting reports.
And yet I feel like over the years I’ve seen statistics becoming more and more prominent in our culture, taking on influence where once they seemingly had no relevance.
One of those areas is sport. American sports always loved statistics, and cricket by its bizarre nature always lent itself uniquely to mathematical analysis. But in recent years this has been taken to newheights – each year the television coverage boasts of some elaborate new way of crunching numbers. Popular website cricinfo has a regular feature of statistical analysis so detailed it has to be seen to be believed.
Other sports too have seemingly become obsessed with stats – soccer, aussie rules and rugby – in coaching and media all now seemingly dominated by the nerdy kids picked last on the playground who abandoned the sports field for lunchtime extra maths study. Most discussions about sport these days seems to turn to stats within a few minutes. This is despite the fact sports fans are not usually associated with loving maths, and that many of the most important elements of sport – teamwork, creativity, courage, discipline – can not easily be quantified.
Art also seemingly improbably has become dominated by statisticisation. For a long time the seemingly esoteric notion of artistic expression has been attempted to be quantified by things like sales numbers and price tags. But that’s nothing compared to the analytics offered these days by online companies like Youtube and Spotify. The mystery of artistic communication here is unravelled into a set of numbers that say a lot without ever getting close to ideas of metaphor, imagery, beauty, transcendence.
Typing “statistical analysis of music” into a search engine will yield hundreds of studies. Startups like Music Xray claim to be able to discover potential hits using data analysis, while others attempt to use computer programs to write hit songs using mathematical patterns.
Of course the main way statistics is influencing art is the way companies use data analysis to recommend to users what art they will like. Music streaming service Pandora was set up entirely on this pretext, and it is now a feature of virtually every big media company as a way of keeping our attention. This statistical obsession of online media has created a whole new artistic genre – “gaming the algorithm” is the process of creating artistically worthless products that get played and thus earn revenue by conforming exactly to the statistical attributes these media companies use to recommend content.
This influence comes through in the idealistic quest of political campaigning too. Using statistics to measure social progress is not new – the UN millennium development goals are a famous example. But these days data analysis is overwhelmingly seen as the answer to the question of how to create desired social change. Political parties can abandon big picture political ideas and instead zero in on the concerns of a small sample of swinging voters. Or in the case of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party a few years ago, electoral success can be based entirely on elaborate mathematical preference deals. Companies like Nationbuilder and Action Network collect mountains of data on individuals to supposedly enable better political communication. They pretty much just collect statistics about people’s online habits, but these days running a political party or campaign without one of these programs is seen as hopelessly out of touch and ineffective, and thus loads of money donated to political causes ends up paid to these companies.
There are other subtle ways I see a statistical mindset shaping how we think about politics – the prominence of what we might call a “politics of media representation”. This is a view, fairly frequently heard, that a way of creating social change is to increase the visibility of minority/oppressed groups in mainstream culture. I don’t disagree that this is a good thing, but it’s interesting to note how it is heard often at the expense of (mostly qualitative) questions of how the everyday lives of people in these groups can be better.
It is statistical in that it assumes people are pure numbers in a dataset, not varied individuals with differing motives – that just belonging in the same defined group means you have the same needs and desires as another. And what seems to be important is the number of people represented, rather than the content itself – an example being the way the big-budget Marvel film Black Panther was seen as a radical political piece of art because it is full of black faces, even though its message could be interpreted as politically conservative.
It’s in the workplace that statistics have the strongest hold on our lives. Industry has always been obsessed with stats – the quest for profits demanding ever increasing measurement of productivity, value and target audiences. The privatisation of services that were once considered unprofitable, like education and care services, has meant a whole new area of life to be measured and counted – a whole new industry of statisticians coming up with ways to measure things. Thus we have Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) in virtually every sector of work. One result is that the parts of life that can’t be measured – like, for instance, genuine education and care – are sidelined for the sake of things that can. Another result is that workers of all kinds find themselves endlessly filling out paperwork at the expense of what they are theoretically paid to do. Whatever skills we have, whatever needs we are supposed to fill, the endless hunger for statistics reduces us all to interchangeable bureaucrats.
Now some people do love statistics for their own sake I’m sure. But mostly, and I don’t think this is controversial to suggest, the drive for increased statisticisation is so more money can be made from more areas of life. Music and art are measured so they can be commodified like items on a supermarket shelf, our tastes measured so companies can demand more of our attention (and thus money) by offering us a neverending stream of stuff they know we like. The obsession with stats in sport is surely due to the industry around sport – professional pundits who can sound like experts by spouting numbers, not to mention the sports gambling industry, or the “fantasy” online sports that have the same addictive quality and do so by turning flesh and blood players in a team sport into digital avatars measured only by their individual contribution.
Statisticisation in politics is surely partly due to that class of professional NGO “changemakers” who need a way to claim expertise separate from the average street person; and need to measure the value of their work to justify their job. Key Performance Indicators – need I say more? The spread of statistics is the spread of capitalism – which, running out of far flung lands and unexploited natural resources, now colonises our entire lives by mapping out and selling the aspects of existence once uncommodified.
Of course, there have been bureaucratic states that weren’t capitalist. And even today much of the most detailed mapping of statistics – surveillance from the Chinese Communist Party to the NSA to the US military drone program – is done not for profit but purely for control.
But in the 21st century, control is often in the name of monetary gain. And ultimately, control is what universal statisticisation achieves, even when it claims to be in the name of giving us better targeted consumer choices to make our lives better.
The greatest bureaucratic program in history is the current rise of algorithmic capitalism. Never have so many statistics been gathered on the population, never more far-reaching in their scope. For-profit websites measure our friendships, our interests, our romantic and sexual desires.
But they don’t simply measure them. The algorithm increasingly dictates what information we see, the physical places we go, how we socialise, how we mate. As “ask google” becomes the destination for more of our questions, the answer more and more is “google’s profits”.
Statisticisation doesn’t just collect data about us. By dictating more of our lives, the algorithm turns us all into statistics – one-dimensional, predictable, controllable mathematical equations. The ideological bubbles of social media are one outcome, the reduction of our lives to a set of social media spectacles (if you didn’t livestream it, were you really there?) is another. Human traits like empathy, adventure, creativity and nuance are being threatened. Statistics can measure everything but seemingly can’t stop us from destroying our planet or suffering a mental health epidemic. You could even say they help us do it more efficiently.
In response, we need to resist statisticisation. Like Wendell Berry said, “every day do something that won’t compute”. Reclaim the value of the unquantifiable. Measure ourselves by who we are, not by our output and input. Dream of futures that can’t be handed to us by a “recommended” feature. We might be measured more than any other generation, but you and I are not numbers. And ultimately our lives will not be made better by computer programs pretending we are.