Numbers: A Limited License to Membership for the Weak and A License to Dismiss for the Powerful

Posted on May 31, 2012 by


As I was riding the Metro a few months ago, I was reading the book Technopoly by Neil Postman, courtesy of Savudgery Enchantarak.

I started thinking about how I was slave to numbers in my own daily life.  Checking how many people visit this blog.  Checking how many followers I have on Twitter.  How many notifications I have on Facebook.  Worrying about how much money I need to make to emancipate myself from debt.

Having more than enough of anything is almost always better, least in the context I live in.  I spend lots of time thinking about how I can get more than enough site visits, more followers, more notifications, more useful emails, more money.

The more I have of each, the more I’m validated by more people in society, or so it feels.  I need to reach certain numbers so that perhaps I could use it to achieve entrance into an income-granting institution.

Why would I want to achieve entrance into an income-granting institution?

Probably for better socio-economic security.  By “better” I mean, more convenient socio-economic security.  I get the same amount of capital flowing in, a fair amount to pay off my shelter, food, water, other people I support.  An institution like a job company or indirectly a school can help me in that regard.

If you can reach some numbers, you can get a limited license to an institution.  If you get a high enough MCAT score, you will likely be afforded a membership into some school.  If you reach your sales quota, you will be allowed to keep your membership as one of the “fortunate” to be employed, i.e. keep hold of your capital-generating mechanism.

Once you reach your numbers, your license is ‘limited’ in the sense that you’re a member of an institution that required that number, but you’re not quite a decision-maker in that institution.  You’re part of the institution, but you’re something of a follower, learner, who is expected to be follow the established tenets of the institution.

You can become a decision-maker in the group, somehow through experience, presumably following the tenets or whatever the institution’s leaders have defined and determined are the tenets.  Basically, over some period of time, you somehow earn more trust from people in the institution and they put you in the position of making decisions for parts of, or maybe even the entire institution itself.  But that takes you a long time usually.

But once you are in a position of decision-making in the institution, you get the license to set limitations.

The limitations set often result in destructions: cutting, destroying, breaking.  This is a gigantic power.

Thinking of those who set limitations, I am thinking particularly of policy-makers.  With “policy-makers”, I think of conservative, Libertarian, Republican, neo-liberal politicians and their arguments against social programs.

A lot of the arguments have to do with numbers.  The programs “cost too much”, and “they’re not helping many people.”

Numbers give a simplified picture of a program.  The simplification provides an angle, a view of a program/organization sparking associations within a decisionmakers’ mind.  If the program doesn’t meet this minimum size of people served, don’t even consider them.  If the program hasn’t shown five years of IRS audits, they’re not trustworthy.

The organization by virtue of its inability to meet numbers, symbolizes an entity that can’t be trusted.  Numbers in effect are the indicators of whether you can trust an entity or not.  In effect, when we don’t know the entity, numbers are a substitute for trust.

Inversely, the more you are familiar with something, like a program, a group of people, an institution the less likely you care about numbers or exactitudes.

So, the moral of the story seems to be: have the powerful decision-maker get to know you and your entity, if you want to play the game, rigged as it might be.