Fun with figures

First, we reduce everything to numbers. Next, we lose the ability to do math. I’m not sure what comes next after that.

I was thinking this when informed that 500 million dollars, divided by 327 million Americans, makes $1 million per American, with enough left over for lunch. This insight, working from a twittertweet, was provided by a member of the editorial board of the New York Times —¬†always a malicious newspaper, but once a respected one. I learn from a blog that at least one prominent TV personality leapt upon it, too, and many lesser souls then copied. The “500 million” was the number these polymaths had taken, on the usual hearsay, as the amount rich meejah-mogul Bloomberg had blown on his badly failed attempt to buy the Democrat primaries. People, they imagined, would have preferred to take his cash directly. (At $1.53 actual, per head, it might buy them each a coffee, but they’d have to shill out for the doughnut.)

In Republican comments, the comparison was of 500 million, to the hundred thousand or so that semi-literate Russian Facebook trolls had supposedly spent, to swing the last election to Donald J. Trump. But a voter would have to be a more sophisticated arithmetician to follow this joke.

Up here in the High Doganate, where we currently lack a panel of experts, but once got a prize for doing sums in school, we (in the sense of, “I”) are seldom surprised. We’re used to progressive, non-binary, politically correct mathematics, and the many headlines they generate. We’re used to blocking them out, and only wonder why the general electorate hasn’t developed this skill. But when told that “the rich” are going to pay for whatever The Peeple wish to appropriate today, they are quickly gulled.

This is a minor matter, however, compared to the numbering itself. Their world — ours — is now apprehended through a thick fog of digit(al)ized numerals. These have replaced things. Judgements, on everything, have been simplified, by reducing each thing, absurdly, to a composition of numbers. We have little machines to do any requested calculations. (“Statistics don’t lie.”) This is called scientific reasoning. True, some of us are still locked in pre-scientific boxes, wherein numbers only bounce off the walls, and things are still apprehended in and of themselves.

It is a poet’s world, if gentle reader relearns the use of his eyes, ears, smell, taste, touch, et cetera. The late Marshall, then his late son Eric McLuhan also counted. They were trying to enumerate how many senses were acknowledged by mediaeval men. The number was in the dozens when I last checked with Eric.

By means of this backward way of looking, our distant ancestors could detect subtleties that made each thing unique. They, like artists, could know plenty that we would judge to be of no importance.

In order to recover this exalted state, under present intellectual conditions, one must try very hard to ignore numbers. Try instead to “see” things, just as they are. Even within numbers, the felt distinction between big and little was worth noting. (This was one of those “senses.”) That anything with more zeroes after it than one has fingers to count, is meaningless to the human observer, was once understood.

For instance the question, “How far away are the stars?” was grasped as irrelevant. They were known to be very, very far away. (The “sense of distance.”) They also knew the Earth was, comparatively, very small. That we couldn’t visit the immensity, was no occasion for regret.

But once we have numbers, the “how to” spirit surfaces. The desire to extend our control over things that are, in their nature, none of our business, comes with the new techniques of calculation. (How many sea miles west, from Huelva to China?)

It is interesting (to me) that about the time Columbus was reporting on the Indies, Queen Isabella was presented with a proposal to establish an academy, that would regulate the Spanish language. She rejected it, not on grounds of what it would cost, but because unlike Latin, or Greek, Spanish was “the language of the people.” Therefore it didn’t concern her. It was instead something outside her reach, a “thing” apart, like the circumference of the earth. Some things, irreducibly,¬†were.