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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations.

Tracking Ourselves To Death

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We’ve become obsessed with tracking everything. Maybe not all of us, but most of us likely track at least one or more of the following: steps per day, body weight, caloric intake, exercise routine, hours worked, sleep.

We have apps on our smartphones and tracking devices shackled to our wrists 24/7/365 for these purposes. Every movement, every action, becomes a data point that the tracking software algorithms can use to create graphs, generate alerts, award achievement badges, or notify chosen friends that we either crushed our daily goals or failed miserably.

This burgeoning obsession with self-tracking has come to be referred to as the “quantified self movement”, which, according to the website quantifiedself.com, promises to help us achieve “self knowledge through numbers”.

But this trackpocalypse goes far beyond the “quantified self movement”. It permeates all our modern digital systems and touches every aspect of our daily life.

Social media platforms track your engagement right down to the minutiae of how long you watched a video before moving on. Credit card companies track what you purchase then aggregate that data and sell it to other companies for the purpose of generating targeted advertising. Amazon tracks every click you make, its algorithms working tirelessly in the background to herd you toward the next purchase based on both historical and real-time data. If you use the Google search engine, then Google’s tracking algorithms probably know more about your habits, hopes, and desires than you do. DoorDash knows what you eat and when. Uber knows where you’ve been. Netflix tells you what to watch next.

Our global financial systems are tracking all stock transactions in real time, every slight fluctuation in gas and oil prices or currency exchange rates. What you pay at the pump or for bread in the grocery store is fluctuating in real time as all the variables that affect cost are tracked and analyzed by algorithms, which have increasingly been granted permission to make changes to prices and values without any human oversight or approval.

World-renowned management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” This is true in business when it comes to key performance indicators such as revenue growth, customer retention, cost of goods sold, etc. Key performance indicators vary from business to business but any business that doesn’t identify and measure them on an ongoing basis is going to eventually fail.

But not can be objectively and effectively measured. Take, for example, the current business trend of “worker productivity tracking” following the exodus of workers from corporate offices to remote home offices during COVID-19 shutdowns. Managers felt they had lost control of worker oversight and, as is often the case, they turned to technology to solve the perceived control problem.

According to a recent report in the New York Times, “In lower-paying jobs, the monitoring [of worker productivity] is already ubiquitous…Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers…Now digital productivity monitoring is also spreading among white-collar jobs and roles that require graduate degrees. Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, ‘idle’ buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records. Pauses can lead to penalties, from lost pay to lost jobs.”

The outcome of worker productivity tracking using digital systems is not surprising. Workers find it “demoralizing”, “humiliating, and “toxic”.

“But the most urgent complaint, spanning industries and incomes,” reported The Times, “is that the working world’s new clocks are just wrong: inept at capturing offline activity, unreliable at assessing hard-to-quantify tasks and prone to undermining the work itself.”

Turns out that when you turn over the management of humans to computers, the computers will treat the humans like they too are just software and hardware. A worker productivity tracking algorithm doesn’t care if you were up all night with a crying baby or that you’re going through a tumultuous divorce or any number of other uniquely human experiences that can directly impact job performance. Algorithms are designed to optimize not sympathize.

A world in which digital tracking systems are increasingly ubiquitous and invasive, will trend toward humans being treated less like humans and more like robots. I’ve written the following in this space before and it bears repeating: we program the algorithms but then the algorithms reprogram us.

We have entered a precarious era in which our technologies are no longer inert and impartial tools. We’ve built complex artificial intelligence systems that utilize machine learning algorithms to rapidly “learn” from the deluge of data fed into them.

If used wisely, digital tracking systems can be beneficial to individuals and to society. If not used wisely, however, the only metric we’ll ultimately be tracking is our own death, the one in which humanity is slowly transformed into robots with no heart, no spirit, and no freewill—slaves to the very machines and systems we’ve built.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He writes the technology focused column "Inside the Box" for the Jefferson Journal. Scott lives on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. He was born in the same year the Internet was invented and three days before men first landed on the moon. Scott says this doesn't make him special--just old.