Managed Selves

As I’ve been stumbling around looking for a dissertation topic in the past few weeks, I came across a quote attributed Peter Drucker, a management consultant and professor.  He is credited with coining this phrase:

What Gets Measured Gets Managed.”

I suppose from a management perspective this might be a good thing.  It implies that you can manage, and thereby improve, things about your business if you are able to develop metrics for tracking them.

But from my perspective, these words speak to a scary truth.  We do tend to manage what we can measure, and that’s not always a good thing.  If you measure the wrong thing, you will either fail to induce positive change or actually create negative consequences.  I’ve already talked about this phenomenon in a past post on education.  In that case, measuring something like graduation rates–when you actually care about the skills students acquire—can lead to misleading statistics and detrimental institutional practices.  However, the apprehension I feel upon hearing that phrase—what gets measure gets managed—comes from a fear of something much worse.

In the age of the quantified self, technology has given us the ability to track all sorts of things.  The fitbit will tell you things like how many steps you take during the day or well you slept.  It seems these technologies and what they can measure will only expand in the coming years (for example, take a look at the new trend in embeddables).  These technologies enable more than self-improvement.   Companies are also experimenting with this kind of technology and data.  I’m talking about much more than tracking employee drivers through GPS technology or using software that monitors mouse activity as a way to know if a telecommuter is actually at her desk.  While those issues are surely a concern, people seem to quickly find ways to subvert this kind of measuring and managing (for example, see here).   For me, the more concerning tracking relates more intimately to issues of personality and the self.   Companies are also tracking things like how often their employees smile, who they talk to, and how they talk.

Although I don’t want to sound too alarmist, these kinds of practices do make we worry about the degree of control entering the work place.   In some ways, it sounds like a tyrannical version of Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor.   What happens when corporations control and insist upon a particular tone of voice, style of workplace socializing, or eventhat you socialize with certain groups outside of work?  (On this last point, see this article on the role of friendship in the workplace from a managerial perspective.)  Will we be able to leave these carefully crafted practices at work?  For those of us who adopt a “work demeanor” and a “social demeanor,” where will the line between the two be drawn? And, if the line disappears altogether, then are we really ourselves?  Or do we become only the selves that businesses deem useful?

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One thought on “Managed Selves

  1. I have been thinking about this a lot lately but from a different angle. It seems that almost everyone I know is pregnant and if you have spent time around them you know that they are being managed to an incredible degree. I understand the regular doctors appointments (monthly, then biweekly, then weekly) but now there are apps for every aspect of your pregnancy and early motherhood. It is interesting to me because women seek out this management, with the goal of self improvement, though simultaneously it seems to dis-empower the mothers– by replacing intuition or self-awareness with technology.

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