Idolizing Data: What Should We Measure?

One of the mantras of the American business community for the last few decades is that if you want an aspect of your business - a service or a product - to improve, you measure it. Makes a lot of sense. Facts, as they say, are stubborn things, and it helps when important decisions are fully grounded in reality.

But do you ever wonder whether, at times, the fact-and-measurement industry in this country might be going a tad overboard? After all, we are still limited by 24-hour days, and what we do with those precious moments is important, given that the number of minutes we are awake presents an ongoing zero-sum-game dilemma. We should pick and choose our data intake carefully, lest we be overwhelmed with trivia, too much information, or information that is, frankly, useless.

While reading a recent issue of Vanity Fair, I was struck by a full-page ad by a dental-hygiene company, some of whose products I use and find excellent. When it comes to brushing and flossing three times a day, I am a fanatic, but do I really need the advertised electric toothbrush "with Bluetooth connectivity"?

I was nonetheless intrigued. The device is sleek, even handsome. For this new connectivity to work, I need, of course, a smartphone app. Once this connection is made (and assuming I can keep my smartphone from falling into the sink while I'm brushing), I can receive "real-time feedback on [my] brushing." This remarkable technology will let me know if I'm "brushing too hard ... brushed long enough and even if [my] brushing habits have improved over time." Longitudinal data can often be vitally important, and with these data, I won't have to wait for my regular dental checkups. Instead, I'll know immediately if I'm getting "a superior clean."

Most of my friends know that I'm a technological Luddite (who only recently established a LinkedIn account), so I'm not about to rush out immediately and buy this well-connected electric toothbrush - especially since for more than a decade I have owned a perfectly good, still working "regular" non-wired electric toothbrush made by the same company. Moreover, my retro toothbrush doesn't feel the need to communicate back to me. In some areas of life, passivity can be a plus.

But now I'm beginning to wonder if, once again, I'm missing out on yet another important trend in our increasingly wired society. The recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas included a connected fork that gathers and evaluates data on one's eating speed. Likewise, I understand there's booming commerce in fitness bracelets that report on one's "whole body movement."

But do we really need to know this information? It is one thing to measure blood sugar, cholesterol, and even one's pulse. But eating speed? The quality of one's teeth brushing? Presumably some very smart people are spending time and resources to invent these new products, and consumers are then marketed these gadgets as the latest must haves.

What we find in America today is a lot of unneeded data that people are told that they need, while in other areas of our life, much-needed data are being resisted for tenuous reasons. I am referring to the opposition around the country to measurements that will report on whether our high school graduates actually know anything or can even do third-grade math by the time they receive their high-school diplomas. There is a growing revolt (which hopefully former Florida governor Jeb Bush can help stop) against the Common Core State Standards that would establish standards for what our high school graduates should know in certain basic areas of their education.

Of course we want our children to graduate from high school well fed and with healthy teeth - but what about measuring whether they are actually learning anything? International tests conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as part of its Program for International Student Assessment show that American high school students are astonishingly mediocre when its comes to their math, reading, and science skills.

The country should embrace this type of education-performance measurement, focus on how best to develop the substantive curricula, and then determine how to use the data to improve our schools and our students' performance.

Leon Wieseltier, formerly of The New Republic and now with The Atlantic, recently wrote a much-discussed essay, "Among the Disrupted," that appeared in the January 7, 2015, New York Times Sunday Book Review. Wieseltier noted that "[q]uantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which itself has been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology." Wieseltier also rightly notes that the "processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire.... The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers."

We need a national discussion about where we are headed with the collection of data and how it is handled - by individuals, by corporations, and by governments. Perhaps the geniuses who bring us real time, app-driven measurements on everything else in our lives can devote some of their creativity to developing "real time" measurements of just how well our young people are faring when it comes to their education. Brushing up on homework might be a good place to start.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation--United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.