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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Meritocracy and measurement myths

Michael Young’s 1959 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy begins in 2034 with a puzzled member of the commanding elite of the future wondering why in the world various discontented factions of the meritocratic society could be contemplating a general strike. What justification could they possibly have for being angry, given that everyone is systematically is afforded a fair opportunity to thrive through rigorous and ceaseless testing. I imagine that some view the Occupy unrest in this light; our culture’s well-groomed and highly educated elite could be looking out from corner offices in bank buildings down at Zuccotti Park, reanimated with what must seem like pointless strife, and think to themselves, What’s with those people? They could work harder, achieve more, take advantage of the systems designed by human-resource agents to capture talent and reward it instead of griping about it. They must gripe because the system has revealed their lack of talent to themselves, or more damning, their lack of inner drive, and now they can’t handle that. They want society to snuff out ambition and innovation to coddle the weak. (And then the elites break out their copies of The Fountainhead for comfort and reassurance.)

In other words, the obvious shortcomings of the meritocracy myth don’t prevent beneficiaries of the status quo from taking ideological comfort in the idea. The more plausible meritocracy seems, the more self-righteous and intransigent the “meritorious” will become. As Young puts it in his 1994 introduction, “If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe they full deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage.” And the corollary of this is that those excluded by meritocracy, if they believe in it, have no excuses for their failure; they simply don’t measure up. From the perspective of the meritocratic future, Young notes, with an ambiguous quotient of irony, that “educational injustice enabled people to preserve their illusions, inequality of opportunity fostered the myth of human equality.”

That’s a classic patronizing conservative defense of existing privilege. If we want people to be able to live with themselves and their shortcomings (if they are to have their “fig leaf”), we need to have irrational distributions of power and privilege that seem like a matter of luck. Then losers can tell themselves they are unlucky rather than inept or incompetent, and this leads to greater welfare for all, at the level of well-being if not in material terms. But propagating the myth of meritocracy also serves as a  justification for inequality and is even more effective as a divide-and-conquer tactic. The illusion of meritocracy creates a kind of prisoner’s dilemma where it becomes more beneficial to outcompete other individuals rather than cooperate for the broader social good, because you never can be sure whether others are cooperating or merely pretending to while building their personal résumé. In Young’s imagined meritocracy, the victorious socialists who destroyed aristocratic privilege in the future society fell apart themselves as “more and more parents began to harbor ambitions for their children rather than for their class. The cult of the child became the drug of the people.” Meritocratic myths reproduce at the level of the family a divisive individualistic temperament, a tendency to construct ambitions in personal rather than social terms  – a better life for me, not a better society for us.

In that 1994 introduction, Young purports to be ambivalent about meritocracy, a term he claims to have invented. It may say more about me than the book that it seems to me heavily slanted against meritocracy, establishing that a unitary principle of “merit” can never be the basis for social organization. There are inescapable problems of definition and measurement. What counts as merit? Who decides, and how is this decision objective? What sort of tests can be devised to isolate “merit” from some inherently privileged position in society that facilitates it? Doesn’t power redefine merit in terms of itself, and what it needs to preserve itself? Young devotes most of the book to detailing various protocols he imagines a society would invent to circumvent this, but none of these are especially plausible; they tend to emphasize how a totalizing meritocracy would be impossible to inaugurate.

But his point is not to convince readers that meritocracy is coming but to remind them of the detrimental consequences  implicit in how the ideal was already being used.  In particular, orienting education toward finding and reaping the talented at the expense of attention to the less talented betrays the possibilities of a humanist education, in which “every child is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society.” Conceiving of education spending as a mode of investment than can be evaluated in terms of economic returns vulgarizes not only the education system but the social definitions of intelligence and “merit.” Given a meritocracy that grounds merit in potential contributions to economic growth, IQ — always already a contested concept — would be transformed into strictly a measure of what an individual can contribute to productivity and GDP, and this in turn becomes what intelligence means. Any thinking that doesn’t increase economic productivity is unthinking, is waste, is unintelligent. Young’s future technician writes, “The ability to raise production, directly or indirectly, is known as ‘intelligence’: this iron measure is the judgment of society upon its members.”

Measuring merit along a specific axis and using those measurements to reshape society would effectively denigrate and discredit whatever can’t be measured. Meritocracy is a by definition a regime of brute quantification; efforts to better quantify the self are always efforts to advance the meritocratic myth. This is more or less the core critique of the quantification that continues to be pushed by tech innovators (who, stereotypically at least, are enthralled by the meritocracy myth themselves). By measuring as much of our behavior as possible and converting it into algorithmically analyzable data, we are supposed to learn the truth about what we really value, but this process simply creates an ideological justification for our believing that we want only what can be measured. And even though what escapes measurement must be passed over in silence, that entire realm is still relegated to irrelevance. No matter what it may be, it is not meritorious, it is not worth exploring, not worth making time or space for in life. Gamification systematizes this belief, exploiting the biological reward system to negate other kinds of incentives, other kinds of endeavors besides having one’s button pressed.

The will to quantify seems driven by the belief that if we perfect the means of measurement technologically, we will at last be able to implement a meritocracy, unveil the truth about value. Young elaborates the future meritocracy’s testing schemes to demonstrate that no amount of more thorough testing, no number of additional tests, can overcome the basic flaw of quantification, the way it inevitably reifies behavior. In some ways, social media justify themselves as arenas for continual retesting of the self, as realms where we can renew our efforts to become meritorious and have a hard and fast numerical measure to prove it to ourselves. But as I have complained innumerable times, this makes attention an end in itself. Whatever we write or do to get attention comes to seem instrumental, The pleasures of identity are less about discovering, owning, and operating a particular unique self (as they were, mainly, under consumerism pre-social media); they are becoming more about mircoaffirmations available through social-media use: we are matched with the people who can affirm us, we see a reflection of ourselves in the data that makes us feel recognized, we are told what to want in a way that assures us we will be doing what is right and normal if we follow automated yet socially derived recommendations, etc. The data self knows itself only to the degree that it shares data and exists within media that can guide it toward various satisfying experiences and allow it to display its satisfactions dependably in formatted and readily circulatable ways.not really intrinsically important. Identity itself becomes not an inherent good  but a tactic, a tool for attention. We think we are trying to “express ourselves” but we end up being willing to express whatever is necessary to get measurable increases in online impact. The possibility and plausiblity of a real self becomes ever more remote. Instead we strive to create novelty values, a sort of pseudo-merit that temporarily enhances the values of various commodities as well as our personal brand while making sure that the value of things is general is made more unstable, tethering us more securely to the lucrative communicative circuits that keep us up-to-date on what is socially valued and how we can try to change it. We put more “immaterial labor” into the internet and our fully subsumed online social networks while extracting less and less of sustenance for the effort.

(In a sense, we become like those who failed to make the technocratic grade in Young’s meritocracy, and must contribute value in the only way we are capable — through meticulous self-regard, through paying close personal attentions, through being pleasing to others. But whereas Young made meritocracy’s washouts into the explicit personal servants of the elite, we are in a kind of servitude to one another, reliant on one another for recognition of our merit and producing an enormous amount of value in exchange for it that ultimately accrues to the elite and not ourselves. I worry that the Occupy protesters must also resist replicating this online dynamic in the midst of their efforts of resistance. The resistance seems strongest in the qualities that can’t be replicated in social media, in the bonds generated through risking sheer presence.)

More and better testing, regardless of how it is conducted, won’t make for better people, despite what educational reformers seem to believe, because tests always impose reductive goals that invalidate some ineffable amount of real aptitude among those tested. The data self is not a more accurate version of oneself but a reduction. Hence Young has his future rebels argue for a “tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated … Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life.” But this sort of humanist program — Young attributes it to Matthew Arnold in the text — is easily abused, turned into an apology for class-riven society. There is something static, stultifying, about an educational program that teaches people to basically appreciate their special place in the hierarchy rather than to strive to dismantle it.

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