In my last Philanthropy Daily article I complained about the uncritical adaptation of the language of “best practices,” one complaint of which was the tendency to undermine local authority and distinctiveness. Another way nonprofits have commandeered the language of the corporate world is the insistence on “measurable objectives” or outcomes.

One might oppose such language simply on the basis that it is ugly – and it is that. And, as Orwell noted, ugly language typically masks ugly ideas. Since the use of words can often be muddled and unintelligible, the rationalists who run things believe they can find clarity in numbers. After all, numbers don’t lie, don’t create ambiguity, and seem incontestable.

In other words, they can be trusted.

At the college where I teach, like all others, I am constantly reminded of the need to quantify things. Grading is a kind of bizarre quantification, particularly in the humanities, but hardly any less so in the social sciences, which believe they can purchase credibility for themselves by imitating their more rigorous neighbors. We have to quantify student satisfaction, quantify mentoring, and quantify learning. The school got thrown off the rails by thinking they could quantify trust (a sad story, that). We quantify employee feelings, faculty scholarship, missional commitment, and strategic goals. We quantify moral values, ideological programs, and “leadership.” About the only things we don’t seem particularly interested in quantifying are things that are actually, um, quantities, such as “dollars raised” and “students admitted.” There, our shortcomings might be more obvious.

Whether all those items above (save the last two) can be quantified, or at least done so without serious distortion, would in normal circumstances be a topic of conversation.

But the modern academy is the last place you will find interesting and honest conversations about such things, and the reason is simple: people have too much at stake, perhaps even their jobs.

Whether due to ideological commitments, grants, a deficient view of “science,” puffing up their own worth, lack of imagination, or simple laziness (my top nominee), the obsession with measuring is the technocrat’s path to legitimacy, particularly in holding authority. In general, the less actual authority they have the more they will trust numbers to do their work for them. They trust numbers because they don’t trust their colleagues.

As Theodore Porter argued in his wonderful Trust in Numbers, quantification is a historically-emergent “social technology” that not only gains currency during periods of political centralization and the development of large-scale economic organizations, but transforms (indeed, even creates) the social sphere itself.

The key impulse, he demonstrates, arises from a “technology of distance.”

In other words, distance creates a certain amount of distrust since local customs, actors, and practices no longer exercise their own authority. As authority becomes more centralized, it also becomes more regularized and more concerned about the problem of “subjectivity,” that is, the variations and difficulties associated with individual judgments or local idiosyncrasies.

Numbers create and transform “society,” reflecting a vast ambition that creates a loss of continuity, mentoring and wisdom that is particular but rich. Numbers, he argues, don’t just tabulate but they create social realities which try to eliminate subjectivity by replacing it with “objectivity.” They replace “judgment” with “measurement.”

As wealth and power become concentrated those who possess it seek to impose uniform accounting on the other areas under their domain whose recalcitrance can be tamed through the imposition of regimes of quantification. Impersonality, discipline and rules become the order of the day.

“Measurement,” he writes, “aspired to independence from local customs and local knowledge.” It becomes a “technology of the soul” that operates as a mechanism of social control and a coordination of activity.

Again, the key is distance, either geographical or sociological. “Middle-class philanthropists and social workers used statistics to learn about kinds of people whom they did not know, and often did not care to know, as persons.”

Statistical thinking could also flatten out the nasty little distinctions among human beings (or institutions) by treating variations from the mean as if they were anomalies rather than strong and interesting differences. For the statistical thinkers “the absence in question is the unique, interested, located individual.” It is “an ethic of renunciation” where what is being renounced is that which is most fully human. That the main actor of modern social science is the computer should tell us what we need to know.

Among the many casualties of quantification is the proliferation of a unique variety of different places and institutions. But it also extracts a cost in humanness; in its effort to overcome the messiness of human interaction it renders it sterile.

Large-scale philanthropy’s use of metrics reveals their trust of numbers and distrust of humans.

Granted, humans disappoint and make mistakes, but numbers are not the neutral instruments the technocrats like to think they are and often result in a further dehumanization of the social sphere.