The Ordinal Society is an argument about how digital capitalism is reformatting the world.
Forthcoming from Harvard University Press in April 2024.
Over the past fifty years, changes in the scope of data collection and analysis have reorganized how we relate to one another. These changes have also radically altered our experience of our own lives, in everything from what we eat to whom we meet. Not only is social life pervasively and automatically measured and scored, but we are now routinely ranked, matched, and classified on the basis of data collected from and about us. We live in an ordinal society, a society oriented toward, justified by, and governed through measurement.
How did this happen? Information technology reorganized vast tracts of the social world into flows of data that computers can understand and analyze. It provided the means to grasp the totality of people’s lives in the form of discrete, standardized units of information. It fed on an abundance of personal data made available for free, often quite willingly, thanks to ever smaller and more powerful computing devices that ended up first in the homes, then on the laps, and then in the hands of billions of people. This process was accelerated by the networked structure of the World Wide Web. The increasing capacity to frame and use these data at scale has reorganized markets, the state, and social life in general. Methods for analyzing it are used to streamline and automate processes of risk prediction, resource allocation, communication, and decision-making. Sometimes these methods are plausible and precise; sometimes they are opaque and even absurd. But inferences from them are used to relentlessly identify, incorporate, and then stratify people in ways that are both highly individualized and flexibly differentiated according to the demands of particular settings. In domain after domain, the overall distribution of opportunity, the everyday experience of status, and the nature of social competition are being reorganized, along with our moral intuitions about personal worth.
Even when the data is bad, or the analytical results are spurious, the outcome is a mode of rationalized stratification that is highly individualized and flexibly differentiated. Our expectations for interaction and exchange are now built around a flow of personally tailored, data-driven possibilities. For people who are “well classified,” the results are often quite gratifying and carry a sense that what is personally convenient is also somehow morally correct. Whether as customers, clients, or citizens, an ordinal society creates the expectation of order based on automated ranking and matching, where people are stratified into categories whose rightness is justified by the power of the methods used to produce them. It is not that everyone is simply reduced to a faceless number. Rather, the ebb and flow of social and economic life is expressed by and managed through measurement. These measures guide people as they find and connect with each other; they direct them toward specific social positions; they provide or deny them material and informational goods and services; and they lend order to the positive or negative judgments passed on them by organizations or by others.
That is the social form we seek to understand in this book.