Monday August 19, 2001
Tyranny Of Numbers
Resistance Is Futile!
T.Q. Shang Staff Columnist
ALTO - - After four years at Stanford, you will inevitably
become a corporate whore. Resistance is futile.
You will prostitute your mind to the
money machine. This includes even you idealistic freshmen who
think youíre oh so special. When you start thinking about what
skills will make you a successful professional in corporate America,
youíll find out that only three are relevant to the job market:
presentation skills, writing ability and facility
In the corporate world, youíll need to
make persuasive presentations in the boardroom, write
short, succinct and clear proposals, and back up your arguments
with careful calculations and hard statistical facts.
In other words Microsoft PowerPoint,
Word and Excel. Everything else is irrelevant. But, today, I want
to talk about the last of corporate Americaís Holy Trinity:
numbers. In particular, Iím talking about the worship of numbers.
As a culture, weíre all obsessed with
numbers. Boys have always felt the innate need to rate girls on
a 10-point scale. Girls keep close count of calories, the number
of shoes they have and how many flowers there are in bouquets
that boys give them.
All of us chatter incessantly about the
precise number of hours slept last night and the number of tequila
shots taken. Call it a cult of numerology. Numbers give us a sense
In the world of numbers, we are fully
in control. With words, we often say what we donít mean, tell
half-truths, argue about ambiguous meanings and debate over unclear
statements. Sometimes, words just donít come out right, even with
no malice on our part.
Novelists often say that readers impute
meanings and intents to their words that they werenít aware of
at the time of writing. In contrast, numbers have clear, precise
meanings that brook no dispute.
Even though Mark Twain famously claimed,
"There are lies, damned lies and statistics," numbers
fool only those who have not taken Statistics 160.
We are in complete control of what numbers
mean. When I say, Dude, Iím taking 25 units this quarter, I donít
mean 26. Unlike words, numbers donít run away and take on a life
of their own. Numbers are eminently susceptible to rational analysis
You may disagree with my interpretation
of Joseph Conradís novels, but we can both agree on the correct
way to add, subtract and calculate probabilities. There are definite
answers, rather than an infinitely multiplying range of subjective
In the world of numbers, we feel like
thereís real knowledge, not just argument and counter-argument.
Because we have this weird feeling of reliability when it comes
to numbers, we have an urge to quantify even the most un-numberlike
things in an effort to understand them.
When Europeans of the early modern period
set sail into the dark, unknown world, they divided the world
into lines of latitude and longitude, enclosing everything in
closely numbered squares. The grid of the map was comfortable.
Numbers were security in the face of
danger. Now, we deploy numbers in an effort to understand such
things as cultural biases, political prestige, honor, love and
war. We even employ an entire class of people to do precisely
Call them social scientists. Large-sample
data sets, statistical regressions and quantifying preferences
on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree) are
the tools of their trade. Numbers can help us understand even
morality and ethics.
Jeremy Bentham in 18th-century England
used a utilitarian calculus to answer that most philosophical
of questions, "What is good or evil?"
Ever-greater quantification is the forward
march of intellectual progress. It is also aesthetic progress.
Umberto Eco reports that a group of writers in Paris is devoted
to produce literature by means of mathematical combinatorics.
It has constructed a matrix of all possible
murder story situations and has found that no one has yet written
a book in which the murderer is the reader.
The greatest triumph of numbers has been
removing beauty from the eye of the beholder. If Helen of Troy
was the face that launched a thousand ships, then a "milli-Helen"
is the precise amount of beauty required to launch a single ship.
And if numbers can conquer even beauty, can the quantification
of the sublime be far behind?
Note: T.Q. Shang is a coterminal student in international policy
studies at Stanford.
His word processor has turned every word that youíve just read
into a string of ones and zeroes. Now What?]