Metric power is a sociological concept developed by David Beer. It involves the prominent use of metrics as a form of "power, governance, and control.": 6 Metric power is used in a range of areas, and can have both positive and negative connotations.
Concept of metric power
Beer's concept is based on three main inter-related ideas which are the focus of metric power: measurement, circulation, and possibility.: 6 Essentially, a measurement of lifestyle data is taken, which is then put into circulation allowing for a range of possibilities to be made for the individual. This creates a cycle of metric power.: 8 To have metric power is to both enable and constrain the possibilities of individuals. These possibilities can be situated in a range of areas, including "our behaviour, our cultural and social practices, and our material reality.": 1774
The measurement of metrics is not new within society. Measuring different aspects of society, and the individuals within society, allows for numbers to be generated in relation to these different aspects.: 38 To measure society allows for certain areas to be given more attention over others. Likewise, the measurement of social life determines what is important and needs our attention.: 1773 Beer makes particular note of the relation between measurement and neoliberalism. Specifically, competition as an essential aspect of neoliberalism. Drawing from French philosopher Michel Foucault, Beer states that "neoliberalism requires and pursues forms of marketised competition - competition, of course, requires measurement.": 17–18 As such, the connection between neoliberalism and measurement stems from governance needing measurements of society in order to effectively govern and have control. Furthermore, in order for competition to be realised, measurements of metrics must be taken. : 18 Beer also points out that measurements, and the creation of competition, are sometimes even taken for fun: "we see that people even measure themselves for fun and allow themselves to compete with other users.": 71 Thus, the measurement of metrics are used both as a form of power and simply out of curiosity.
The circulation of measurements throughout the world and within different areas allow for metrics to become "more visible and powerful than others.": 78 Beer identifies two types of circulation of measurements: the 'social life of methods' and the 'social life of data.' The 'social life of data,' Beer states, is "based on the circulation of metrics themselves," while the 'social life of methods' is "based upon the circulation of the methods that produce that data.": 80 Simply put, the measurement of metrics circulate throughout society is different ways and this circulation allows for the further production of metric data.: 1788
The circulation of measurements are also related to algorithms. On the relationship between circulation of metrics and algorithms, Beer states that "there is no doubt that in trying to understand the way that metrics circulate, we would need to understand the part played by algorithms in filtering, searching, retrieving, promoting, and prioritising those metrics.": 110 This is especially important with the growing and evolving technology of today, where society is unable to control the circulation of data.: 112
The possibilities that are generated from the circulating measurements are the final, and most important, idea of Beer's concept and what also gives the collection of metric data power.: 128 Additionally, the possibilities created by the measurement and circulation of metric data further creates new norms or solidifies existing ones, as well as creating categories for measurements.: 130–131 The creation of such, as explained by Saori Shibata, allows for "some things to be more visible than others, and for others still to be hidden, leading to an increase in the importance of certain phenomena whilst others are rendered marginal.": 1774 Therefore, the created possibilities can not only have the ability to influence, but also has the ability to inhibit.
Examples and uses
Some of the most prominent and obvious examples of metric power is through the use of smart devices. Beer makes particular note of Apple's Apple Watch. Stating that the use of metrics within the device is actually a marketing technique of the developers.: 6 On their website, Apple states that data collected from their devices in conjunction with specific apps (for example, health apps) is used to "promote healthier habits." Similarly, other smart devices like Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, is marketed to "help make your life easy as," and that "Alexa can entertain, organise, and keep you connected." The inclusion of metric measurements is a central, and successful, selling point to smart devices.
Workplaces have also been known to take advantage of metric power in forms of "surveillance, electronic performance monitoring, personal analytics, wearable self- and other-tracking and monitoring.": 1785 Beer understands call-centres as a prime example of workplace metric power. In this type of workplace, employees are monitored in many ways ranging from being listened to during phone calls, computer use being tracked, and even when employees would be on a break. Beer states that this type of metric power is an observation of employee effort, noting that when an employee knows they are being watched or listened to, it specifically promotes compliance within the workplace.: 1–2 Therefore, within workplaces, the measurement of employee effort is circulated within different channels in order to provide possibilities, or produce compliance, for the employees.
Although metric data measurement is often used within society in a positive way, in recent years, there has been a large amount of concern surrounding metric power. Particularly, the public are often concerned with 'listeners' on their smart devices. As well as who views their data, where the data is stored and why the data needs to be collected at all.
In Australia, 2020 saw the Australian Government develop a coronavirus tracking app, COVIDSafe. However, the Australian public raised concerns surrounding the app, making suggestions that it would be unsafe to use due to data collection and privacy concerns.
Elsewhere, social media platform Facebook has been making headlines due to concerns surrounding data collection. These concerns went so far so as to attract the attention of the US Congress, leading to a hearing in 2018.
- Beer, David (2016). Metric Power. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. ISBN 978-1-137-55648-6.
- Shibata, Saori (2018). "The quantified self in precarity: work, technology, and what counts / Metric power". Information, Communication & Society. 21 (12): 1774–1778. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2018.1464591 – via Taylor & Francis Group.
- Moore, Phoebe V. (2018). "Metric Power". Information, Communication & Society. 21 (12): 1785–1790. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2018.1442491 – via Taylor & Francis Group.
- "Your health, from head to toe". Apple. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
- "Meet Alexa". Amazon.com. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
- Polson, Laura (4 September 2019). "Aussies fear their mobiles phone 'listens' in on their conversations". News.com.au. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
- Page, Rosalyn (11 May 2020). "COVID-19 and the privacy problem". CMO Australia. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
- Wong, Julia Carrie (11 April 2018). "Congress grills Facebook CEO over data misuse - as it happened". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 October 2020.