Frederick Taylor and the quantified self


The faithful gathered in San Francisco earlier this month for the Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference, an annual conclave of “self-trackers and tool-makers.” Founded by long-time technology writers Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, the Quantified Self, or QS, movement aims to bring the new apparatus of big data to the old pursuit of self-actualization, using sensors, wearables, apps, and the cloud to monitor and optimize bodily functions and design a more perfect self. “Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing,” Wolf explains, trackers are seeking “self-knowledge through numbers.” He continues: “Behind the allure of the quantified self is a guess that many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are.”

“Allure” may be an overstatement. A small band of enthusiasts is gung-ho for QS. But the masses, so far, have shown little interest in self-tracking, rarely going beyond the basic pedometer level of monitoring fitness regimes. Like meticulous calorie counting, self-tracking is hard to sustain. It gets boring quickly, and the numbers are more likely to breed anxiety than contentment. There’s a reason the body keeps its vagaries out of the conscious mind.

But, as management researcher H. James Wilson reports in the Wall Street Journal, there is one area where self-tracking is beginning to be pursued with vigor: business operations. Some companies are outfitting employees with wearable computers and other self-tracking gadgets in order to “gather subtle data about how they move and act — and then use that information to help them do their jobs better.” There is, for example, the Hitachi Business Microscope, which office workers wear on a lanyard around their neck. “The device is packed with sensors that monitor things like how workers move and speak, as well as environmental factors like light and temperature. So, it can track where workers travel in an office, and recognize whom they’re talking to by communicating with other people’s badges. It can also measure how well they’re talking to them — by recording things like how often they make hand gestures and nod, and the energy level in their voice.” Other companies are developing Google Glass-style “smart glasses” to accomplish similar things.

A little more than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced “scientific management” to American factories. By meticulously tracking and measuring the physical movements of manufacturing workers as they went through their tasks, Taylor counseled, companies could determine the “one best way” to do any job and then enforce that protocol on all other workers. Through the systematic collection of data, industry could be optimized, operated as a perfectly calibrated machine. “In the past the man has been first,” declared Taylor; “in the future the system must be first.”

The goals and mechanics of the Quantified Self movement, when applied in business settings, not only bring back the ethic of Taylorism, but extend Taylorism’s reach into the white-collar workforce. The dream of perfect optimization reaches into the intimate realm of personal affiliation and conversation among colleagues. One thing that Taylor’s system aided was the mechanization of factory work. Once you had turned the jobs of human workers into numbers, it turned out, you also had a good template for replacing those workers with machines. It seems that the new Taylorism might accomplish something similar for knowledge work. It provides the specs for software applications that can take over the jobs of even highly educated professionals.

One can  imagine other ways QS might be productively applied in the commercial realm. Automobile insurers already give policy holders an incentive for installing tracking sensors in their cars to monitor their driving habits. It seems only logical for health and life insurers to provide similar incentives for policy holders who wear body sensors. Premiums could then be adjusted based on, say, a person’s cholesterol or blood sugar levels, or food intake, or even the areas they travel in or the people they associate with — anything that correlates with risk of illness or death. (Rough Type readers will remember that this is a goal that Yahoo director Max Levchin is actively pursuing.)

The transformation of QS from tool of liberation to tool of control follows a well-established pattern in the recent history of networked computers. Back in the mainframe age, computers were essentially control mechanisms, aimed at monitoring and enforcing rules on people and processes. In the PC era, computers also came to be used to liberate people, freeing them from corporate oversight and control. The tension between central control and personal liberation continues to define the application of computer power. We originally thought that the internet would tilt the balance further away from control and toward liberation. That now seems to be a misjudgment. By extending the collection of data to intimate spheres of personal activity and then centralizing the storage and processing of that data, the net actually seems to be shifting the balance back toward the control function. The system takes precedence.

9 thoughts on “Frederick Taylor and the quantified self

  1. Tim

    I just got back from a conference on education and tech and I wished I checked this out earlier. Frederick Winslow Taylor has a lot to do with why schools are the way they are. It is disturbing to see his spectre rising yet again.

  2. BKT

    Thanks a lot for writing and posting this, Nicholas.
    I agree, SocraticGadfly. It will be “other tracking” or simply “tracking.” But it will be called something quite clever and misleading, of course.

  3. Daniel Cole

    I think you’re on to something here. Discount card/data mining is already working well for the big grocery and drug store chains as well as most major retailers. Any consumer has a right not to participate, of course, but if they don’t, they will face raised prices. I could see these kinds of programs being framed in such a way that they appear to comply with the suggestion that consumers profit from their own data. Insurance is only the next logical step, and again, participating will appear to be the rational choice for consumers. There will probably soon be very few industries that don’t make similar discount programs the standard. The “quantified self” rhetoric might make good prepackaged PR, but I’d agree that the quantified customer or employ will be the broader phenomenon.

  4. Cindy Wolff

    Using numbers and systems to achieve self-actualization does indeed label someone a tool-maker for many reasons.

  5. Laraine

    Although I hate Google’s algorithmic snooping of my e-mail, I don’t especially mind the super market tracking my purchases and then coincidentally giving me coupons for snickers and nachos, but this level of work force monitoring is scary as all get out. It seems designed to create an all too obedient workforce, prior apparently to replacing said workforce by machines.

    So what does management do if they track too many people in one place at one time, possibly complaining about the working conditions, remove their workers’ monitoring devices and boot them out the door? The last paragraph of this piece was both depressing and chilling, because “tool of control” seems right on the money for what’s happening to what many of us once thought of as a “tool of liberation.”

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