Letter from the editors – 8 April 2022: When quantity trumps quality
[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 8 APRIL 2022]
Our modern age, through its obsession with utility, has come to place undue emphasis on quantity.
How do we mean? Well, when one takes a quantitative approach to life, it essentially means you think statistically. You break down things in units, say of production, or labour or costs.
A qualitative approach focuses on skills, ability, craftsmanship; that is, the value of personal contribution. It has a place for merit and it values the individual.
The quantitative approach, on the other hand, has no value for the individual. It is one that focuses on averages and numbers; its values are quantifiable and based on numerical outcomes.
It’s all fine and well. Quantification has its place. The problem in when this approach is pitched as a panacea for all areas of life and is used to forge ‘social solutions’ that it is presumed will be of benefit to ‘most’.
It slots in with the bureaucratisation of life, which we moaned about in our editors’ letter of 11 February 2022. The link is this: to quantify and bureaucratise things (or people) is to depersonalise them.
One sees it in the way many jobs now fulfil such an insignificant portion of an entire process that the person who does the work may as well be a machine. Think of a seamstress tasked with sewing only the cuffs on the left sleeves of shirts in a clothing production line.
In our modern times such humdrum tasks are now exemplified in the services sector: think of the guy who packs goods in an Amazon store, or the chap who brings your Uber Eats. The economist will tell you this is alright. The guy has a job. This exemplifies the quantitative approach, because no one gives a fig if the Uber Eats guy finds meaning in his job.
The danger with a society that upholds no other value than quantity is that this approach indeed starts seeping into other areas of life.
In this manner, the quantitative approach has come to dominate our political discourse. Quotas, affirmative action, political correctness and other social engineering phenomena reflect the quantitative approach to life.
It is an approach deployed to solve social dilemmas by quantitative means. And no, it is not a South Africa-specific phenomenon. It is the language that has come to dominate the speech of the political elite across the globe.
In the political arena the quantitative approach presumes to improve social dynamics by quantitative means and thereby keep the masses relatively peaceful. (Even the notion of hard-attained democratic rights seems a pyrrhic victory in a system ruled by the quantitative approach, as it evaluates the population by proportion, if you think about it.)
As one can intuit, such an approach does not care an iota about the individual and fosters an attitude that sees everything, and ultimately people, as numbers.
To favour quantity over quality is a mechanical attitude that presumes humans, animals, plants, even the world, function like robots and we are all cogs in a machine.
But we aren’t robots! We are humans!
Humans have an innate craving for meaning. That is, to go through a cycle of experience and complete something. We find satisfaction in seeing something through to its conclusion in a manner that invites our meaningful participation. That is, after all, an emulation of the cycle of life which each of us has to go through. But think of the example of the seamstress who sews cuffs on the left sleeve of a shirt: under her eye the long row of left sleeves getting cuffs never completes anything.
So be circumspect about the allure of quantification. Lest we disappear altogether into the faceless, number-crazed future. Lest we utterly lose our humanness.