Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Monday, November 12, 2012

Brian Eno On Education, Society's Need To Quantify Everything, And The Data Fetish,

Fascinating discussion between Brian Eno and economist Ha-Joon Chang in The Guardian about a whole host of things including education reform, quantification and the "data fetish".

Read the whole thing, but here's an interesting snippet:

HJC: Oh yeah, but my view is that we don't live by bread alone. We have to accept political considerations, and cultural and social considerations …

These days, economics has become such an all-encompassing way of thinking that everything is supposed to justify its existence by how much money it makes. Are you making enough money as a university? Are you making enough money as a classical orchestra? I think it's a fundamentally wrong approach to life. Because economics might be the foundation, if you like … but if you try to create a world in which everything is driven by money and the market, the world will be a much poorer place.

Imagine if all those kings and dukes hadn't commissioned those crazy cathedrals, paintings and music … we'd still be living in sticks and mud. Because none of those things made any economic sense. Human beings' capacity to "waste time" is a miracle – but that's exactly what art is for.

BE: Ha-Joon came up with a good title for a book that I might write: "A Total Waste of Time"!
CLS: Are these questions increasingly urgent, because over the course of the last couple of decades, that rightwing mindset has won out – we have rightwing figures now who, 20 years ago, would have been beyond the pale?

HJC: Absolutely. These ideas have penetrated so deeply into our society, it's poisonous.
BE: It's not only money, it's also other forms of accountability. Look at education in this country. I've just had two daughters go through the system here, and nothing mattered at all, as long as they could get through their A-levels. It doesn't matter if you don't actually understand a word. I could see some of their friends who were good at remembering things, but had no clue at all about what they were talking about, who got A stars.

HJC: In that system, curiosity is actually a great disadvantage. Which means that any creativity gets lost.

BE: It's to do with the act of quantification. It's part of the money thing: something that you can put a figure to immediately assumes a sort of authority, even if it doesn't deserve it.

What is the value of a park? You can't quantify it. We keep them because we've inherited them. But I'm sure there'll be a rightwing movement in the future that says, "Parks? What are they for? People just wander about in them – and there's dog shit all over the place. What's the point of that? A great big piece of real estate in the middle of London that could be generating income – we can quantify that." Quantification is a big temptation for society because it looks like control.

HJC: People tend to think that numbers are quite objective, but numbers in economics are not like this. Some economists say they're like sausages: you don't know what they really are until you cut into them. Once you know, you become very sceptical ...

I'm not against numbers. You need some numbers, to work with. Life would be impossible otherwise. But we've made these numbers into fetishes.

 Art is not the only area affected by this quantification – education has been affected, family relationships, too – but I think art is the most endangered area of life. It's not obvious how something makes money. Sometimes, you have an artwork that you think is terrible, but then some billionaire is prepared to pay a huge amount for it, and suddenly it becomes valuable. And you are supposed to like it because it's expensive, and it must be expensive because it's worth it. So even the values within the art world are distorted.

That's an excellent diagnosis of what ails our society - the insatiable need for top-down control, to quantify everything and to deify data.

This is of course what seriously ails our education system.

Add in the profit motive and you have the recipe for neo-liberal disaster capitalism.

Or education reform as brought to us by Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, and Michael Bloomberg.


  1. Very good article and thanks for posting. It's time somebody reminded us that everything shouldn't be about data and money.

  2. Yeah, I thought this was a really great article.

  3. As a math guy, I'm a number fetishist, but I hate it when people try to bend them to do evil, like the proprietary test mongers...that's just disgusting.

    Geoff Hagopian

    1. I think numbers and data can be very helpful. The problem for me is when the people in power make believe like numbers and so-called "hard" data are the only things that matter, that qualitative data is "soft" or irrelevant or something.