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Monday August 19, 2001
Tyranny Of Numbers
Resistance Is Futile!

T.Q. Shang Staff Columnist
Stanford Daily

      PALO 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 with numbers.
     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 of power.
     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 and manipulation.
     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 interpretations.
     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 this task.
     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?

    [Editor's 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?]


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