Monday 2 November 2015

Escaping the curse of iTyranny

It is fourteen years now since my book on the phenomenon of too many numbers was published. The Tyranny of Numbers was an attempt to flag up the corrosive gap between official or corporate numbers and reality. Or anything important, which by definition can’t be expressed directly as a number.

The problem is that numbers look hard-headed and objective, but they are chained to definitions, and these are endlessly malleable. The result has been the slow undermining of most official numbers – whether they are the relative value of currencies or the emissions from Volkswagens.

I wish I could say that my book did the undermining, but I’m not yet so self-obsessed. The truth is that the targets culture has been steadily undermining itself – but without putting anything in its place that can set frontline staff free and yet provide some kid of accountability.

The Tyranny of Numbers was one of my most successful books, both in terms of sales and impact – but it badly needs revisiting (if any publishers are out there!). Because the story has moved on.

It has moved on partly in the way that money has turbo-charged the bad effects of targets, especially in payment-by-results contracts in pulic services – which, despite the rhetoric, when they were first introduced, are just targets on speed.

You can read more in my article on PBR measurement in 2011.

But it also moved on partly in the way that the digital world has further obscured the great gulf between numbers and reality. We believe what it says on the screen because it looks scientific. But often it is just standing in for reality, just as the old targets numbers did.

This is not to criticise some of the great innovations that have made modern life less stressful – knowing how long the bus will take to arrive is a major benefit for civilisation.

The danger comes when we start extrapolating the other way. As if exam results were really a measure of intelligence. As if genes were really measures of courage or ability with numbers or footballs.

This is a kind of impoverishment of public discourse and it undermines our understanding of the world around us – especially as, the more important you are, the more in thrall to this kind of measurement and graphs fantasy you seem to be.

It is a tyrannical removal of shades of grey in any argument. And it goes with the obscene profits of Apple this year, helped along by the forcefeeding of our children with Apple products by the education system.

In fact, I have coined a word for it – and would very much like to write about it, if anyone feels like joining me. It is called iTyranny.

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