As the dust settles after the momentous earthquakes of Trump and Brexit, one fact remains standing amongst the rubble: our democratic seismographers completely failed to detect the rumblings, and were assuring us metropolitans of our safety, even as the tsunami mounted about us.
It was a victory for the privacy of the voting booth against the forces of polling, prediction and direction, and, for a moment, it seemed that the pollsters were humbled. But, man’s nature being what it is, it wasn’t long before the same voices whose designs lay discredited all about them in the wreckage, cleared the dust from their throats and began chorusing on the same failed notes, desperately trying to explain away reality by applying the same ‘objective’ analyses to the new political order. They were wrong, and we should remember their failure.
However, as damaged as the facade of their polling objectivity is, the visible husk of the bureau of information still stands atop a vast and labyrinthine network of self-reinforcing tunnels, in which pale, clip-board brandishing Niebelungen horde together to collect on, analyse and direct the passions and hungers of mankind.
These are the subterranean halls of ‘social research’, where far more than our voting preferences are submitted to scrutiny. Though the polls proved false, just the same kind of research is conducted about many more aspects of our lives, in a way that is threatening our liberty and dignity.
This brave new world of social research promises a new era of responsive policy decisions, tailored to meet the exacting needs of the electorate. It claims that collecting vast troves of data about the manifold areas of public interest allows government planners to effectively predict, gauge and modify social behaviour, down to what you will place on your ballot paper.
This has its utopian elements; however, in the sweaty confines of unassuming call centres and research offices dotted around the country, a cold and directing tyranny is taking root. In neat row upon row of office booths, researchers are amassing the raw materials of a vast maternal superstate, that is now and will ever more concern itself with ever more facets of public and private life in its pursuit of ‘bettered outcomes’ for all (whether you share their preferred outcome or not).
I speak as one who knows, for I am a member of this most despised and rejected segment of mankind; a call-centre worker.
Like pigs at a trough, I pack in with my fellows to our massed telephonic feedlots to annoy, question and harass the public in the service of government departments, universities and quango charities alike.
It is my role to ask the (mostly elderly) respondents about the intricacies of their bowel health, the frequency by which they ‘vigorously’ garden in the ‘yard’ while ‘puffing and panting’, and all the other sundry and manifold minutiae of their lives which deign to show an objective snapshot of the common man. I have asked about your average daily intake of ‘home-made custard or hollandaise sauce’, about your perceptions of Justin Bieber, Bob Marley and Barack Obama and about your views of everything from Muslims to your own weight.
These questions, taken in isolation, are interesting, but when dealt with en masse as I do, you see that they are all flawed in the same way. It is the same limitation by which the political researchers’ failed in their recent predictions; no one knows Mr Jones quite like Mr Jones. In the words of Pope: ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of mankind is Man.’
This is not to say that there are not undoubted benefits to these kinds of research. In a state where what Lord Moulton called ‘the domain of manners’ is ever shrinking, and ‘the domain of the law’ ever filling to take its place, there must needs be some mechanism for directing this law in an intelligent and just way. If cigarettes are indeed killing everyone, and a link between images of violent gore being splashed upon every carton can be proven to lower the rate of smoking, then surely it is just and right for government to attain this proof and act accordingly?
But this social research, while just in the abstract, is corrupt in practice. In asking, ‘do you agree or disagree that you would like to see X or Y governmental policy introduced’, one makes no room for qualification; no considered opinion can be provided, respondents can only answer to a simplifying and reductive metric.
For all their considered and cautious answers, only the grueling framework of ‘strongly agree or agree’ enters the system. Out of this sea of data, government officials may pluck whatever statistic suits their designs, and if no statistic is forthcoming, can simply funnel a few million tax dollars to commission a new study that will grant them the justifications they desire.
It was in this way that the Australian ‘Health Star Rating’ was introduced, which gives a chocolate milk mix that is 50 per cent sugar a rating of 4.5/5 health stars.
But it is not merely in the practice alone that these pollsters and researchers are failing; there is a moral deficiency present throughout this research, that sees all things through the prism of means, rather than as ends in themselves.
It may be seen, that we shall some day be able to precisely quantify the correct number of servings Mr Jones requires of protein to extend his mortal coil to the utmost tension of its temporal capacity, however, I might predict that bacon and egg will not be on the menu. It may be, that knowing Mr Jones’ average daily intake of ‘home-made custard’ will in some small way assist development and improve the lot of mankind, but, despite any supposed benefit his answer might have, it is not befitting for a nation of self-governing individuals to submit ourselves to such maternal banalities as having our sugar intake monitored, or our bacon rationed.
If no one can know Mr Jones quite like Mr Jones, then as far as possible it should be assumed that Mr Jones knows what’s better for Mr Jones than Mr Smith, or certainly the regulatory board for sugar consumption.
‘We could make shift to live under a decauchee or a tyrant; but to be ruled by a busybody is more than human nature can bare’ wrote Thomas Babington MacCaulay, but we are quickly showing ourselves to be rid of this human nature with which we were endowed, and rather, like De Tocqueville warned would become of America, are ‘reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.’
So the next time you are alerted to some questionable statistic or suspicious opinion poll; take heed! We have completely failed in accurately predicting human behaviour since time immemorial. God willing, we will forevermore.