Be careful what you measure

Peter Drucker once said “What gets measured, gets managed”. But the inverse is also true.

For the longest time, I didn’t care much about getting enough sleep. All of that changed the moment I started tracking my sleep. I slept more and my sleep patterns became more regular. My sleep got managed. But in the process, I also turned into a sleep zealot. I became deadly serious about fixing my schedule, eating dinner earlier, getting back home soon and cutting down late night screen time. In effect, my sleep metrics ended up managing me.

We see this to be true with several organizations. Metrics end up bending their culture in ways they could have never fathomed. The social media and internet giants offer a great example here. Most companies in this space started off with easing communication, organizing data and helping people transcend geographical, financial and intellectual boundaries. However, they based their revenues on advertisement. As a result, most of these companies do everything necessary to monopolize user attention (and therefore, revenues) even if that means serving click-bait, creating echo-chambers and leading to a world that is ironically more connected and fragmented at the same time.

Consider a company that defines their competition along the following lines:

“…we compete with all the activities that consumers have at their disposal in their leisure time. This includes watching content on other streaming services, linear TV, DVD or TVOD but also reading a book, surfing YouTube, playing video games, socializing on Facebook, going out to dinner with friends or enjoying a glass of wine with their partner, just to name a few. We earn a tiny fraction of consumers’ time and money, and have lots of opportunity to win more share of leisure time, if we can keep improving.”

This company essentially aims to compete with what it means to be human. While those lines read as though they are straight out of a dystopic science fiction novel, they are actually from the Netflix investors page. It isn’t that these companies are evil. But what they choose to measure, especially after they turn public, ends up pushing them into disturbing trajectories.

What gets measured, ends up managing you. Sometimes in ways you could not have imagined.

Every individual must question what is most dear to his long-term happiness. Every company ought to ask themselves the change in the world they stand for, and measure that change rather than merely profitability. Governments ought to determine whatever is best for their people and push tech policy towards national well-being.

The human use of technology is the foremost challenge of the 21st century.

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