Saturday, 2 October 2021

Counting the cost

Life is full of strange numbers.  But mostly we ignore the subtle groupings and structures that shape the way we think our world.  How many of us are aware of the effort of putting 60 individual seconds into each minute, or of the seven-dayness of the week?  Has no one noticed that four always seems to divide into 12 but never 13?  As our daily acquiescence in the world's fictive homogeneity shows, by learning to count so glibly we have lost the rich granularity of existence.  We are numb to numbers.

Anthropology lets us retrace the gradual erosion in awareness which took place as civilisation evolved.  The simplest societies count one, two, many.  Earliest humans probably found only one.  Each object in their world was unique: it did not surrender its specialness by being rudely classed as like another.  The pebbles on a seashore were not numberless; instead, they were individual components of an immense experience we have now forgone.  Instead, we see only a beach.

As society progressed, the successful warriors and rising merchant classes demanded bigger numbers to cope with more cattle, more bags of wheat.  Already the sense of what five or fifty entailed was bleeding out of the words: fifty became a rich man's flock.  By the time a hundred thousand Persians marched against Greece, the concept of a soldier, a man, one, had been hopelessly damaged.

The loss of the purity of numbers went hand in hand with the rise of money.  Objects were converted to values which soon had only a weak and arbitrary sense of quantity:  one shilling was twelve pence, but how many is a penny?  With money came the need to manipulate figures by themselves; hitherto they had been regarded as incommensurable entities rooted in real things.  Mathematics was born the day six sheep first equalled six goats.

The Roman number system proved hopelessly inadequate: you cannot multiply DCIII by XLIV.  The logic of the Arabic system which supplanted it led to  revolutionary concepts like zero and negative numbers.  With the arrival of a notation for less than an absence of cattle, the last links between numbers and their origins in the external world had been cut.

Commerce was quick to seize the opportunities opened up by this untethered arithmetic.  Freed from any grounding in physical objects, numbers became amoral.  The abstract intricacies of double-entry book-keeping allowed ingenious frauds - literally unthinkable for the Sumerian clerks drawing up their inventories in cuneiform.  Present-day trading in currency futures is only the latest manifestation of counting's promiscuity and perversion.

In the computer, the neutral number attains its acme.  The whole world - its sights and sounds, our thoughts and emotions - can be reduced to a seamless string of 0s and 1s.  Paradoxically, there is now no sense of number in anything, even though everything is a number.  And ironically, the hidden figure that lies at the heart of all experience is 1, just as it was at the very beginning.  But on the way back we have lost entirely the richness of that original, particular vision.

(1987)

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