One of the promises of digital life is that more data will help us make better choices. But we also have to consider the economic and human costs of fitting Fitbit to all aspects of humanity.
There are movements all around us to measure and improve more parts of our lives. Financial services companies crunch the numbers to estimate who should qualify for a home mortgage. Companies like Apple and Amazon want to make people healthier by providing us and our doctors with more information about our sleep, heart rate and other aspects of our bodies. Some courts use software to help impose prison terms based on the likelihood that an individual will commit a crime in the future.
And as my colleagues Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram describe in an article published this week, more workplaces are defining how employees spend their time.
Companies try to measure the effectiveness of call center employees, financial professionals, while on computers and interacting with colleagues or clients. Hospice Care Chaplainsand manage how they spend their time.
Data-driven productivity techniques were popularized on factory floors in the 20th century and later used by blue-collar professionals like truck drivers and Amazon warehouse packers, but they have also spread to office jobs.
We see the appeal. What is the point of technology if not to inform our choices or remove human error from the equation?
At work, an investigation by The New York Times found that people who like to have their work quantified said it made them more aware of how much time they were wasting and better valued their efforts. Hard-working workers may find technology — sometimes derisively called “bossware” or boss software — attractive to lazy and hard-working employees. This can sometimes be confusing at work, whether you work as a grocery store cashier or a technology CEO.
If you’re familiar with sports like baseball and football, using statistical judgment to evaluate athletes and dictate strategy, this is Moneyball for desk jockeys.
But Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist and author of Artificial Non-Intelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, is skeptical that technology can or should help free us from the chaos of human decisions.
Yes, it’s useful for computers to search through reams of financial records to detect potentially fraudulent credit card payments, and for mortgage companies to analyze whether they disproportionately lend to white homeowners and use that information to change the system.
But in many cases, data and people must work in tandem.
Broussard told me that for decades there has been a technological fantasy that computers can judge workers or impose fair prison sentences. But most aspects of life, including doing well at work, are not mathematical equations.
“It makes no sense to use these kinds of monitoring practices,” Broussard said. “They are not adequate for the ways in which people actually work. People are not machines.”
Broussard gave the example of group activities that people do at school and at work. We know that some people put in more effort than others. It may be unfair or annoying, but there is a reason that group work continues. People have different and complementary skills that can add up to more than the sum of each individual contribution. Collaboration often makes work better and more enjoyable, and a computer score can’t necessarily measure that.
Also, he says, innovation occurs when people question conventional ways of doing things, but are prevented by systems programmed to conform to everyone’s imagined ideal of the status quo. People believe it’s smart others It should be monitored and evaluated with data, he said, but they hate it when it happens to them.
I asked Jodi what she had learned in the months of reporting about whether software could ever better gauge people’s worth at work or guide them in more productive ways to spend their energy. He said that workers for the most part do not believe that their full range of action can be determined.
“Maybe one day in the future, someone will invent a ‘Bosver’ – this is a management technology – that will really win the trust of workers,” said Jodi. “But the productivity tracking technology we wrote about in this story often leads to anger and resentment because it simply doesn’t match the reality of what it means to do great work.”
before we go…
TikTok is now in the limelight. My colleague Tiffany Hsu has written about concerns that TikTok has become a breeding ground for lies, including information related to high-stakes elections around the world.
And lawmakers and regulators in Washington are unhappy with the lack of progress in policing TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps that could leak data to Beijing, my colleague David McCabe reported. (I’ll have more on TikTok in tomorrow’s newsletter.)
Government-approved over-the-counter hearing aids: My colleague Christina Jewett said that the Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for a new category of approved hearing aids that people can buy on their own, just as we do with prescription glasses. I’m curious how this new consumer product market will develop, and I remember that it took decades for over-the-counter eyewear to develop into what it is today.
from On Tech in 2021: Over-the-counter hearing aids have the potential to show government and technology companies at their best.
Golf carts don’t have to be just for golf. David Zipper, a transportation policy expert, wrote in Slate that many communities should make room for golf carts because they could be a useful, affordable, and climate-friendly transportation technology for the future. He worked for a Peachtree City, Ga., zipper detailer.
In other transport technology: My colleague Ked Metz explained that self-driving car services, including the planned expansion of the Lyft service in Las Vegas, rarely drive their cars independently of human control.
This is A dog with a Mardi Gras themed stocking stuffed on its tail. The dog, Stevie Nix, looks just as adorable Glove on the nose.
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