Metric anxiety describes the feelings and affectivities associated with assessing oneself, and being assessed by others, through quantitative valuation practices, especially measurement. Prominent examples include like-buttons, star ratings, view counts, or the number of social media followers; as well as self-tracking health parameters, calorie counts, or running distances.
The extension of measurement to the most intimate spheres of human life needs to be seen in light of the hegemony of neoliberalism, which has raised metrics for the purpose of e.g. optimization, efficiency-maximization, or (self-) improvement to the prime mode of human organization. Historian Jerry Muller aptly calls this development the ‘Tyranny of Metrics’,
where certain forms of measurement have come to substitute trust with control – in the name of accountability and transparency.
The appeal of metrics lies in the fact that they reduce the (metaphysical) ambiguities of complex relations to (physical) numerical values. Metrics allow for previously incommensurable moral, cultural, economic etc. spheres to be compared. On the governmental level, for example, the Better Life Index by the OECD takes on multifaceted qualitative relations, such as ‘life satisfaction’, ‘feeling safe walking alone at home tonight’, ‘self-reported health’, or ‘labour market insecurity’ and turns them into performance indicators that can now be ranked on a common scale. On the individual level, metrics confront us in the shape of Facebook ‘likes’, the number of retweets, Instagram followers, or TikTok views – as well through self-tracking via apps that measure burnout risk levels, blood sugar data, or productivity. The ability to share such metrics with others puts individuals in a constant state of surveillance both by the self and by others. In a classically Cartesian sense, metrics allow for the control of an unruly body, by a rational mind.
The translation of qualitative relationships into metrics has consequences for how critique is being performed. Whereas qualitative relationships (e.g. politics) are critiqued through judgement based on moral and ethical principles, metrics (e.g. the number of Instagram followers) are evaluated through technical procedures based on utilitarian and calculative principles.
Yet, this does not mean that metrics are objective empirical representations of the world. Instead, they are inherently political and biased. This is to say that because metrics refuse to let anything appear except that which is measurable, they render some phenomena visible, while others remain invisible. In effect, metrics create, rather than describe, the very reality they claim to represent. To put it differently, metrics are constructed, rather than ‘natural’, yet in this construction, they are made to appear as natural. And metrics are value-laden, rather than ‘neutral’, yet they are popularly perceived to be expressions of absolute truth. When metrics are evaluating (the performance of) people, they have an incentivizing function. In this sense, metrics have an affective appeal that overlaps with the liberal ethos of being the best version of oneself, and the neoliberal ethos of antagonizing against others in order to come out on top (or at the very least not be at the bottom).
If affect is a mode of thinking,
metric anxiety is a way of embodying the competitive pressures set by what neoliberalism deems valuable, be it ‘likes’, ‘shares’, ‘retweets’, ‘views’, ‘followers’, ‘stars’, or workplace KPIs. On the one hand, metric anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, unease, or fear about the inadequateness of one’s own performance. It is the perpetual worry to be underperforming against a benchmark set by either oneself, or by others.
Psychologists, on the other hand, point out that anxiety and some degree of stress can also be positive, in that they have motivating effects.
Metric anxiety, then, can also signify excitement and a feeling of reward due to improved metrics, or in anticipation of improved metrics: waking up in the morning and checking whether you have any new followers, likes, or friends, may be accompanied by a sense of excitement (and then perhaps followed by disappointment).
Metric anxiety is therefore both encouraging and coercive, and analogous to what Lauren Berlant dubs ‘cruel optimism:’
a yearning for something that in fact betrays the very promises that are attached to it. This is because metric anxiety is not so much about metrics being a means to another end, where anxiety arises because metrics as a means are not good enough to achieve a particular end. Instead, metric anxiety is about the harsh realization that metrics are their own end: the perpetual evaluation of ourselves for evaluation’s sake, always in an indexical relationship with others’ relative metric performance, without an end in sight. There is no final follower or like; no upper limit to retweets or views that satisfies the craving for improving metrics, or ever releasing us from the stress – be it motivational or asphyxiating – that metric anxiety produces.
To begin to think about emancipating from metric anxiety is, at least in part, to acknowledge that metrics are a form of embodied activity that allow for certain relations and actors to be critiqued. But metrics are an inherently immanent form of critical activity that can only correct and regulate in relation to an (unachievable) benchmark. Metrics cannot question their own conditions of possibility. As opposed to critique and judgement, performing measurement and technique does not address higher order questions of what is measured and why.
To address metric anxiety, is to make this fact visible. But it is also to value and visibilize that which cannot be measured; that which Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to as the nondenumerable: “neither the set nor its elements; rather, it is the connection, the ‘and’ produced between elements, between sets, and which belongs to neither, which eludes them and constitutes a line of flight.”