Beyond Quality

Undoubtedly this is an age of codes. Ultimately, a code is a quantity. A particular code is one of a finite number of possible codes.

As the age of codes the dominant metaphor is of machines exchanging information. We apply this framing device on every level of existence: our neurons are tiny computing machines that create a larger computing machine we call the brain. Organisms are input output machines that take in materials x, y, and z and make them a, b, c. We are consistently algorithmic about things: our economic system is a constant optimization problem maximizing profit.

Let us take a step back from this. A machine is a construct. It is something we humans build and deploy to some end.

Another step back, looking at us humans. There is something fundamental to each of us: we experience the quality of the world. We exist in some way that must necessarily defy quantification.

Consider the task of assigning some number to pain or pleasure. Certainly there is some way in which the experience of say, pain, is more or less than the experience of some other pain. Yet the actual texture and fact of that pain is not contained in calling some pain 7 out of 10. It is an absurdity to compress that experience down into that tiny number.

That economically we are so obsessed with numbers, prices in particular, is then incredibly worrisome. W. Edward Deming said it best:

“Price is meaningless without a measure of quality.”

While Deming means something particular here, the reduction of waste, I think we can generalize: “Quantification is meaningless without an experience of quality.” The word ‘red’ is a code, a quantity. It is a selection from a list of possible words, but there is able to be a code for ‘red’ as humans have an experience of red.

We cannot then regard price as being external and objective, by which I mean: without reference to an observer. It is the quality of experience of the humans involved in an exchange which offers grounding to the meaning of that price.

I then ask of you how well we Americans are doing on the quality of experience front, and compare that to the economic front. Clearly the meaning of an economic exchange has been unmoored relative to the flourishing of quality.

I expect there are a multitude of reasons why this is the case, but I’m much more interested in figuring out what to actually do about it.