There was a man of Cheng who was going to buy himself shoes. First he measured his foot; then he put the measurements away. When he got to the market he discovered that he had left them behind. After he found the shoes he wanted, he went home to fetch the measurements; but the marketplace was closed when he returned, and he never got his shoes. Someone asked him: “Why didn’t you use your own foot?” “I trusted the measurements more than my foot,” he replied.
Han Fei Tzu
This Chinese story reminds me of how often we find ourselves measuring things that don’t need to be measured. Instead of giving people choice and control we measure their satisfaction or their outcomes. So we exercise a subtle act of power – invalidating their choice and validating our own right to determine what we count as valuable.
Measuring has always been political. It was considered sacrilegious to carry out a census, precisely because such a census (which could then be used to levy taxes) was a way of giving power to the measurer – in this case the king.
Today we are more relaxed about measurement. We measure ourselves, take surveys, monitor our health and subject ourselves to a battery of bureaucratic measurements and assessments. But do we know why? Have we subjected ourselves to the measuring state in the hope that it will thereby take care of us?
As genetic controls increase such measurements will take on a new dimension – they will start to determine our credit scores, our suitability as a parent, the cost of our insurance. We may start to feel much less relaxed about giving up so much information about ourselves.