Measure for Measure

Protagoras (490–420 B.C.E.) said that “man is the measure of all things,” but Protagoras had never seen a modern hospital.

I’ve been making hospital calls for years and sympathizing with patients who feel they are so constantly being tested that they have no chance to get better. It’s the first thing that happens when they look at you in the Emergency Room: take your temperature, your pulse, your blood pressure, your oxygen level, send you off for x-rays, ask you to blow into a peak flow meter. My chief complaint was that when I was sickest, they did it most, waking me from a sound sleep to check my “vital signs.”

But what was different this time was the extent to which the measurements made themselves. The last time I had my blood pressure taken it had been done the “traditional” way: the aide put a cuff on my arm, put the stethoscope under it, puffed it up with a little squeeze ball, watched as the pressure changed, and made a note of the reading. Old Dr. Gilray did that when I was a child. But this time, the aide put a velcro cuff on my arm and went about her business while the cuff puffed itself up, took a reading, and reported it to her with a beep.

Everything’s automatic these days. Remember how hard it used to be to read a thermometer, holding it just right to see the silver thread and sticking it back in again and again when it seemed not to be registering? No more. Just stick it in, take it out at the beep, and you’ve got it. And how about the little finger clip that reads the oxygenation level of your blood? Dr. Gilray knew, of course, that there’s oxygen in the blood, but to get a painless and instantaneous reading? Impossible.

What gave me pause was the realization that in this world of increasing reliance on computerized everything, where people nervously ask how long we can continue to out-think the machine, it’s no longer about humankind measuring the world. I have become a mere source of statistics. The machines are measuring us, and they know more about us than we do!

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