Saturday, November 10, 2007

What's the Score?

For the last few weeks now, the concept of applying numbers to deeds has somehow bothered me.

I'm not a huge advocate of scoring things. I wasn't exactly the best student in college, but I'm still doing fanatical experiments in probability despite getting a B (that's a 3.0 out of 4) in the class. I may not necessarily be the best writer in the world, but getting rated a 21 out of 40 in a small literary event somehow seems off. I'm aware that I still have quite a few gaps in my English skills to fill out, but an 83% ranking in my last intelligence test feels... unreal.

Of course, I could just really be more average than I thought at mathematics, or not as good at writing as I'd like to be, or really mediocre in English. Maybe I just have too high an opinion of myself, and I just don't realize the reality. It's your call there.

And yet I'll still cringe when somebody decides to rate a movie as "3 out of 5", or adds up the figure-skating totals to make an 89.7, or distinguishes basketball players according to the number of minutes they played.

Hard numbers are good enough, I suppose; I like records. You can say that you consume a dozen eggs every morning and I'd be impressed at your stamina. (For that matter, I'd wonder if the chickens ever complain.) But the moment you attempt to tie your one dozen eggs to how strong or fit or healthy you are, then I'll start getting skeptical.

That's because ratings are relative. One man's "1" is another man's "10." And often, those numbers will change with time, experience or opportunity.

As a project manager in my previous job, I was once called upon to rate my employees every year. Now, lest you think that this task was easy, it was actually more ominous than it looked -- the idea was that, if the company would ever hit a bad patch and we found that we couldn't support multiple programmers, then the person with the lowest cumulative record would be singled out for possible termination.

Was it brutal? Yes -- there was the possibility that somebody would find themselves out on the streets because of a few numbers. Was it easy? No -- it gave me the impression that I was figuratively choosing among my children.

But was it justified? In both a technical and statistical sense... yes.

That's because the scores were there. I mean, the logic looks good on paper: If a person consistently gets bad results, then by conclusion, that person should be the most disposable of the group. It was like throwing somebody to the wolves in order to get the other passengers to safety, or drawing lots among shipwrecked sailors to see who would get eaten first.

But the system did not take into account a lot of things. It did not take into account, say, any programmer who was perpetually stuck with demanding clients or unrealistic deadlines. It did not consider extended absences due to valid leave (during which the employee in question could obviously contribute little to the company). It did not consider people who may have needed more training, or people who may have needed more experience, or people who may have just needed someone to give them a hand when they had to burn the midnight oil. You cannot allocate a score to such things.

But you could attribute a number to how many deadlines they hit, or how many client submissions they completed. And somehow this was taken as a measure of how well they could contribute to the company as a whole.

I'm glad that the company never hit a patch as rough as we had foreseen, and I'm glad that the program was discontinued after a couple of years. Otherwise I probably would have resigned from the guilt.

And yet that still does not allow me to sleep well on some nights, knowing that in some way I'm being looked at in my current job. Maybe they're counting the number of projects I finish. Maybe they're counting the number of complaining customers I field. Maybe they're counting the number of times I take a coffee break, or the number of times I pass by the bathroom to take a leak.

When the numbers are blindingly obvious, then we're talking about hard data that's presumably easier to justify. When the numbers are relative or subject to circumstances, however, then we're talking about something that doesn't necessarily sum up everything about a person or object. They're just numbers, and We. Are. Not. Numbers.

We take such ratings way too seriously. Somewhere along the line, we figured that we couldn't be bothered to actually observe people inside and out, and we figured that giving them relative scores would do just as well. Somewhere along the line, we decided that it was okay for ourselves to be branded as a five or a six or a two or an eight, never imagining how it would end up twisting our perceptions.

We're all people, darn it. We each have different takes on life, on love, on struggle and death and all things in between. We have opinions and habits and vices and prejudices. We have wants and needs and fears and fetishes. Surely we can't collapse all that into a single set of numbers. Heck, we have a hard enough time finding the right words to describe ourselves.

A number is a number is a number is a number. It is utter bull to say that it encapsulates who you are, who you were, and who you wish to be in one tight little package. Don't delude yourself into thinking otherwise.


Ida said...

Sean, your entry nearly made me cry. :|
I was going to say something about a short story that has the same message as what you said here, but I just can't remember the title (or the author). I guess I'll just have to get back to you on that one. Unless you already know what story I'm talking about, and would like to remind what it is? :)

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

There's a part in The Little Prince where De Saint Exupery writes, "Grown-ups love figures." I find it one of the saddest truths from that book.

Sean said...

Ida: Sorry about that. I didn't intend to write something that would make people laugh and something that would make people cry in consecutive posts.

Now that you mention it, I did have the feeling that I'd read something like this before. I can't for the life of me remember what it was, though...

Ailee: It sounds so innocent when you first read it, until you grow up and realize how morbidly truthful it is. :(

Ida said...

Basta it had something to do with us being people and not numbers, there was even a line there that went like "I'm not a number! I'm a human being!"

I could be exaggerating. Does the story you're thinking of have the word "Robotics" in its title?

Sean said...

I googled for "not number human being", and got a reference to The Prisoner, an old British-made science-fiction series. It's on my list of must-watch things, but it's probably not what either of us is looking for...

I don't remember the word "Robotics" in the title, mind you... but I do remember something about robotics that had to do with this. Maybe it involves The Twilight Zone, or something like that...