Metrics, indicators, targets, rankings, audits, assessments, polls, statistics, big data, algorithms. Numbers and quantification dominate modern life. Algorithms find your friends on Facebook and recommend prison sentences. Test scores determine which colleges might accept you after you compile a list of possibilities based on U.S. News’ or Princeton Review’s rankings. Your GPA is an indicator of your academic performance, and my course evaluation scores must reach certain targets if I want to keep my job. Your BMI can raise your health insurance premiums, and your Fitbit step count can lower them. We can assess whether a war has been won or lost by tallying body counts and the number of villages we control. If the Earth’s temperature rises more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, our planet will become unrecognizable and uninhabitable. If the financial sector contributes more than 4% of the GDP, a crisis might be on the way. The big story of the last presidential election was the failure of polling.
This quarter, we will ask what it means to live in a world dominated by numerical representations and quantitative rhetoric. With modern technological capacities, everyone from corporations to universities to governments and militaries are producing measurements and metrics, capturing ever more data about our political and economic choices, our social habits, our health, and our environment. Numbers carry an aura of objectivity and fact, but they are also tools of power. Decisions about who or what to count, how to count, and how to divide and rank determine how resources are distributed, who requires surveillance, and what policies deserve consideration. As metrics, indicators, targets, rankings, and audits, numbers always mean more than just the quantities they represent. They take on a life of their own, affecting the very realities they are supposed to passively reflect. Once you begin to see the modern world as a world of quantification, it’s hard not to find numbers everywhere.
In this course, we will examine the social, cultural, rhetorical, economic, and political work of quantification and metrics in four major areas of modern life: education, war, climate change, and financial capitalism. We will discuss and debate questions like: How do numbers represent the world? How does quantification function as a strategy of power? Who tends to benefit from quantitative representation, and who tends to be harmed? What is missed in purely quantitative representation? Can qualitative representations have as much truth value (or validity) as numerical ones? How do we handle conflicting quantitative and qualitative accounts? How does modern literature represent, reflect, and/or refute the dominance of quantitative reasoning? We will explore these questions with the help of a variety of texts, including popular science writing, novels, short stories, documentary films, theoretical essays, and scholarly articles. Participants will engage with course concepts and readings through class discussions; in-class activities; several short, formal essays; and numerous small assignments.