Ableism in the Numbers - Social Metrification

Ableism (able + ism) is apparent in many interactions between people. While driving on a road having a posted limit of 60 KPH, I was traveling slower since I expected a red light to soon appear ahead of me. The driver behind me - at that point stopped due to the red light - hollered that no car should be driving less than the posted limit. I explained, "60 is the maximum speed. You shouldn't do more than the maximum. You have to drive below the maximum." He persisted that I should drive maybe at least 50. At this point I invited him to go ahead and drive more than 50 - this being impossible since we were both waiting for the light to turn green. When the light finally turned green, he sped away from the intersection. Now, although I was going slower, I overtook him at some point. I think this is because, sitting back in my pickup without a care in the world, I could see and take advantage of openings in the flow of traffic; he on the other hand kept getting mired behind cars turning left. I share this story since it is an example of ableism and its close connection to numbers. The other driver possibly felt that men should be driving faster than the speed limit. Some men feel obligated to prove or assert the point - perhaps due to uncertainties about the meaning of the phallus. To me he seemed like somebody from a male-dominated society where assertions of masculinity mean a great deal. Little did he realize that he was merely a prostitute for numbers. If the limit were 80 KPH, he might argue that real men should drive at least 80. He judged himself by the standards set by others, so deep is his colonized identity.

Now, an interesting discussion that I encountered in introductory social science involves the following: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." This has always been the easiest argument to make, and it is not unreasonable to make it. I find it much more daring for a student to argue that "guns kill people": this seems difficult to support without resorting to social construction. It is possible to approach ableism from the standpoint of ideals and attitudes. I find it difficult to ignore the fact that some sort of persistent metric or measurement criteria in the environment seems associated with ableism. For example, the driver that was preoccupied with my Sunday morning driving speed took the posted speed limit as a measurement for normalcy; and he asserted that I was being abnormal by driving below it. By the way, his car boldly displayed emblems and colours that I believe some readers would associate with terrorism; but far be it for me to question him about his choice of automotive decor. I am so easy-going, I totally ignored his car. Nonetheless, for him, I was the social misfit. I am here to argue that ableism is frequently something structural and persistent in the environment; people respond to this environment by exhibiting behaviours associated with quantitative or quantifiable ableism.

Consider an office where there is a regular turnover in staff. (There is a constant movement of people in and out.) Yet the standard by which a "good employee" is measured tends to persist regardless of who is doing the measuring and who is being measured. Production targets maintain production behaviours. Failure to perform behaviours might lead to failure to reach targets. The manager of a production facility must seem rather unproductive since he or she doesn't normally produce a great deal. However, the manager isn't measured by the same standards applied to production workers. The quantitative valuation scheme is meant specifically for production workers. Metrics function as instruments of control to ensure that workers, to the greatest extent possible, are committed to their production duties. They are reduced to that which they can produce. Within this social-metrification, it is quite easy to appreciate how a worker perhaps exhibiting less willingness to "produce" might be labeled as unproductive or undeserving. Not only this, huge segments of the population start to appear "ineligible" for value recognition in such a work setting. I count older people and those with disabilities among those that might be the disenfranchised.

I worked in a factory setting a few times in my life. If the body cooperates, I find the factory floor actually a bit relaxing. A person is able to "leave the body" - although only up to a point - there being many hazards in a factory if a person goes too far from the body. But sure, the body can look after itself assuming it "fits" the intended environment. A young person for example can probably endure the heat of a factory in the summer. It can certainly be a test of endurance. Jurisdictions like to talk about greater levels of equality among people through legislative protections; but in practice, I think that a person who does not fit the environment will tend to voluntarily leave it. Production goals set the benchmarks for employment eligibility. This is why I believe that metrification of the workplace is probably much more relevant than individual ideals and attitudes. Metrification forces one's body to negotiate with and sometimes against the self. We see then that the data isn't just what a person produces but also recognition of structural expectations on the body. If a person cannot produce much, it might have little to do with desires and attitudes but an emerging physical alienation.

Structural Manifestations of Ableism in Data

Given my guns example at the outset, it would be reasonable for readers to expect my use of the term "structure" to be connected in some way to "social construction." But my focus has been on the structure of data and the processes giving rise to data. The idea here is that, as an anthropological concern or specimen, taking into account how data is "involved" in the entrenchment of norms, and that these norms persist although the people interacting with the data change, the data itself must somehow be implicated in the persistence of infection or pathology. The concept of ableism helps to inform our understanding of the structural impairment of data - its "instrumental" purpose, function, and existence. In fact, guns do indeed kill people. Guns enable the shooting. Guns set the standard for violent engagement. Guns make it easier to shoot a person rather than sort out differences and disagreements. Data allows for the metrification of society - the control of those within society - the subjugation of the masses. Now, it will be difficult to sway those that are unwilling to incriminate the device. A bit later I will provide some examples of data where I deliberately altered the structure to overcome expressive impairments; this strategy would hardly make sense if the fault were entirely due to the person doing the expressing or perhaps the person doing the interpreting (the "guns don't kill people - people keep dying from guns" argument).

Metrification precedes the entrenching delineation of norms in society - the placement of things forming the ontological framework for our reality. Metrification is the paradigm through which the reality we recognize becomes disassociated from the environment and increasingly entangled in ubiquitous power structures that hold people in their places. The metrification of society is premised on disablement. I suggest that many would accept that our social interactions are heavily influenced by normatives of "performance" and "conformance." Through these normatives, there isn't merely a division of people - for example social classes. There is deep ontological differentiation that gains expression through data and the data systems of organizations. Even before people are labeled as one thing or another, there is systemic delineation. Before somebody can be described as a "bad employee" or "good employee" there must be facts or supporting data to enable the assertion. Delineation precedes fact. Metrification precedes valorization. What is true in the workplace I believe is also true of society more broadly. That which structurally persists can populate, propagate, and pollute our awareness.


I have two examples from previous blogs. The first involves the "science of the person." Medical science makes use of large amounts of data involving "people." Science is poorly suited for a specific person unless that person is part of an aggregate study. There is no science about "John Smith" for example. If he has special needs, he would be treated as an abnormality requiring special care, attention, and perhaps accommodation. If John Smith has an extreme sensitivity to light, researchers seem unlikely to build a science around him in order to optimize his chance of survival. Not only this, it is unlikely that physical structures such as windows would be altered to assist this particular individual. The data or numbers generated from Mr. Smith would serve to reinforce his abnormal circumstances: his "disease" makes it difficult for him to generate income; he requires permanent financial support; he is a costly biological mistake. Science belongs to the ruling segments of the population. The data confirms the fitness of "normal" people and the incapacity of misfits. There are few alternate paths to interpret the data. The person has no science. Epistemological authority has been commandeered by . . . the gun. We tend not to blame the gun since inanimate objects lack motive. Perhaps my background makes it easier for me to blame problems on "systems" and "processes" rather than physical living embodied characters.  Data is part of a system - the part that is apparent on the surface.

The structure of data and data processes is involved in metrification. Consider a method that I introduced in a recent blog: it might be described as making use of the science of the person. If researchers are willing to accept the possibility that such a science exists, suddenly the chains and shackles of oppression become apparent. The crosswave differential algorithm can make use of data entirely from the individual: it is unnecessary to seek out other participants to bolster the data because the data is not intended to support statistical reductionism. There is no need to make use of external metrics to evaluate significance. What is true for the individual (the user) doesn't have to be true for anybody else. What is true for somebody else need not be so for the individual. I mention the algorithm to make a conceptual point. It is not my intention to question medical science. If a non-white female person doesn't quite fit the environment, and most prevailing treatments are based on studies of white men, the data that is used by the medical profession becomes an instrument of asserting male white dominance. Why? Well, within the metrification, the non-white female might be at a disadvantage. This disadvantage can therefore become entrenched by the data system - actually "causing" white men to become superior. If there were a science of the person - and there is, and I have been writing about it - the "data" about that person would be only about that person and nobody else. Applying that data to the aggregate might not help the aggregate.

Another example from my own research involves the use of codified narrative. The theory behind codified narrative is that the reality of the individual can gain expression through internal rather than external structures. If one were to approach "a story" using a spreadsheet, it would be difficult to give that story much shape due to the structurally defining and confining nature of spreadsheets. This does not mean that the story lacks shape; but rather, the shapes that receive much attention using a spreadsheet are quantitative. Expression through spreadsheets is probably fine in relation to certain financial concerns. Consider a scenario where the reality is non-financial - perhaps the recent mass murder of more than 80 people in France by a young visible minority driving a truck - an act of terror. How might a person examine the reality of the murderer - using a relational database? A spreadsheet would not only fail to hold the story, it would distort reality. I mention codified narrative as a conceptual foil against methods more designed to define and impose meaning over phenomena. When the goal is to understand phenomena, imposing meaning through metrification might be extremely unproductive.

How might codified narrative be related to ableism? By depriving the story of the person - by making existence a topic of metrics - the power dynamics shift from the individual to the external regulator or control. This situation can be found in the commodification of labour. Rather than regarding a worker as a father, husband, contributing member of society, he might become 500 units of production at $200 in costs per day. This data, which of course can be easily recorded on a spreadsheet, is highly ableist. I am certain that the company would if possible replace this person by somebody who could produce 600 units at $150 per day. The data is not about the person per say. Management might consider the "individual" irrelevant since he or she can be replaced. The metrification paradigm dictates the placement of this person in the scheme of things. If the data did not exist, determining placement would be difficult. In sharp contrast, codified narrative can be shaped by the person. The meaning of the story can exist beyond the context of production. Data can therefore lead to contextual confinement of the individual by an externality - a kind of forced confinement. But properly structured, the data can support the expression of the individual by the individual.

Woe to the Colonized Masses

This blog is posted on a forum intended for data scientists. So I will mention that the term "colonized" should be interpreted in the same light as "colonoscopy."  I refer to Susannah Bredenkamp's use of the term "colonization":  here is the underlying article - one of the most enjoyable I have ever read. I suggest that colonization is actually an elaborate scheme to delineate the value of people in society - that metrification and colonization are closely aligned. However, the concept of social metrification is something I think many data scientists readily appreciate. Social membership today means acquiring a label for proper identification - sort of like boxes of cereal on a shelf. We become commodities. We can be distinguished by our ingredients and the nutritional contents listed on our labels. This instrumental existence is quantitative. Metrification can conceal truth - not by lying necessarily but by drawing attention only to the numbers. People are differentiated based on their numbers.

As I was preparing this blog, I found myself caught up in the appropriate "tone" to use. Rather than discuss ableism directly, I could have taken what I consider a more sterile route, perhaps semiotics. I recognize my tendency to discuss the meaning and relevance of symbols in relation different objects. On the other side of the spectrum, I could have focused on how metrification suggests exploitation. The individual and their lived experiences are purged from data because, as I am sure some would argue, society is premised on exploitation; and so individuals hardly matter. Call it a weakness, but these days I tend to delve into the aspect of a discussion that seems to have the most relevance to logistics and systems. Ableism is pervasive. There is a limit to the extent to which people can gain benefits from an ableist environment. But I wanted readers to understand that ableism isn't just about the interactions between people in connection to signs and amounts. It can be social structural. It can be "data structural" - to the point where I have implicated data in the process of ableism. I therefore find it perfectly natural to configure data and the processes that give shape to data in order to reassert the individual. If price and production contributes to bondage, then freedom might involve reconstructing the ontological basis such that more of the person is involved in expression.

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Tags: ableism, ablism, bondage, conflict, critical, disability, epistemology, feminism, karl, management, More…marxism, meaning, metrics, metrification, ontology, oppression, processes, significance, social, structuralism, studies, subjugation, subservience, systems, theory


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