Perceptions of Value

I recently got to experience the dubious joys of both problem solving and purchasing decisions in a bureaucratic environment, and it got me to wondering about value – what it is, and how it’s measured.

The thing that sparked the whole train of thought was the need to do something on a computer system – a newly-identified need for which no approved procedures existed, and for which no tools were on hand. When asked how I would go about the whole, fairly trivial thing, I foolishly responded “Well, I’d boot the system off a live Linux CD, then blah blah blah from the command line.” Which, I should point out, would work perfectly well…

The only problem was, Linux is free, and it turns out that, the problem having been identified – and acknowledged as a problem by the higher-ups – money had been set aside to deal with it. I know, that’s hardly a problem – usually the issue is no money being available – but in this case, nobody who mattered would believe that the problem had been resolved unless at least some of that money had been thrown at it. Because of pesky things like purchasing orders and paper trails and accountability, we couldn’t just use use Linux, and spend sixty bucks on a nice lunch for everyone, either.

We wound up going with a painfully complicated commercial “software suite” from a well-known manufacturer. The documentation is almost non-existent, the user interface looks like something out of the 1990s (“What the hell is that?” asked one person. “That, my friend”, I replied, “is ANSI art.”), and the whole thing is really quite painfully user-unfriendly. That doesn’t matter, though, because it cost money – therefore it’s seen as having “value”.

This is a very widespread hurdle, one that has stood in the way of commercial adoption of free software like Linux for quite some time. The problem is, of course, that “value” is a judgment call. It’s not scientific; there is no standard for defining and measuring it. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great if people just got off their asses and finally made ISO standards for everything? Then we could stop being emotional, irrational sacks of meat with personality, and become cool, rational, and all sophisticated:

A: “What’s up, dude?”
B: “Not much, man. Just finished watching a re-run of Seinfeld.”
A: “Any good?”
B: “Not really, only 8.6 w/h. The commercials were actually better, at an average of 9.2 ma/ch.”
A: “That’s freaking sad, dude.”

The problem isn’t so much that you can’t define value in this context – it’s, basically, a return on investment, right? – but that you can’t easily define, let alone quantify, the units of measure. If a $100 wristwatch gives you five years of service, is it a better or worse deal than a $50 watch that runs for ten? Did you remember to factor in the (perceived) emotional value of owning a Swiss chronometer – or, depending on your personality, the emotional rewards of owning a watch that was “Made in Russia”? Does accuracy matter? Does resale value matter? Should weight? What, if anything, is the luminous dial worth to you?

These are the sorts of judgments that people make every day, often in – literally – a split second. We do so emotionally, of course, and often in (quite!) different ways from one another. Quite aside from what to name all the relevant standards of measurement for judging value, this brings up the biggest fundamental problem to quantifying value: Perception. One persons side-splitting joke is another’s crass stupidity; what clothes one thinks looks sophisticated another finds appalling.

Value, I think – once you get away from purely financial investments – is unknowable and unquantifiable, because it has less to do with facts and numbers than thoughts. Some high muck-de-mucks think that software you buy is a better value than stuff you get for free. (Free goods or services would seriously hinder any scientific calculation of value, regardless – you can’t divide by zero, after all.) That’s fine; it’s just important to remember that that position is a judgment, not a proven fact – or even a provable assertion. And, at the end of the day, “because I sign your time card” really is a valid argument in favor of doing something the way someone thinks something should be done. They may be good or bad judgments, it doesn’t matter – categorizing them really isn’t possible, because you can’t measure emotion. When you try to, well… that’s when all the problems start.

Published in: Geekiness, General | on April 22nd, 2008| Comments Off on Perceptions of Value

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