Striking back at the Empirical

Abstract data seems to drive so much in our lives.

What’s your BMI?  What was your investment return?  What were your test results?  How many hours do you work?  Calories consumed?  Awards?  Website visitors (damn you, Google Analytics!)?  Friends / Followers / Connections?

A person summarised in a CV, a company placed in a league table.  All very reassuring, informative and digestible.  All very useless, lacking in insight and utterly sterile.  Why does success seem to be determined by some crazy mathematical peacock display?

There’s no nuance in numbers: there’s a lot to be said for ditching a cultural obsession with metrics in favour of some good, healthy immeasurables.

Technically, I shouldn’t have a problem with the empirical approach.  The good side of it comprises discovery through experimentation and experience.  That means playing about, varying the conditions, not knowing the result, following your hunch, and most likely having fun.

When it degenerates into the need for everything to be measured and compared, for affirmation to oneself or demonstration to a crowd, that’s the problem.  Then there’s a tedious convergence that happens, the world closes in, and boundaries are only pushed in linear ways that can be measured and broadcast.

I have had a personal dual with measurables this year.  They are tempting to strive for, and they supply sensible answers to simple questions like ‘how are things going?’.  But metrics only play well to the short term.  The things that make a person useful and wholesome are the things that are impossible to measure – they reside in the “je ne sais quoi” of unfolding events.  Cling on to the perceived credibility of measurables at the expense of quality, meaning and experience, it seems to me.

Data can be printed out.  Imagination and lust for life cannot.  Good on paper only makes the paper good.  And paper always ends up in the bin.

Or, as Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”.


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