Strictly By the Numbers
Week of Monday, August 20, 2001
One of the chief characteristics of our modern, western culture is the quantification of nearly every aspect of life. I am reminded of this when I sit down at night with my teenagers to watch Sports Center on ESPN; the arcane statistics they bombard you with are something to behold. Air travel also reminds me of the ubiquity of numbers. This week I used my electronic ticket #016 2167592512 to take Lufthansa flight #458, which took off from Munich at 12:53, flew 11 hours and 48 minutes, then landed in San Francisco at 3:05.
Other examples come easily. I have always wanted to run a four-hour marathon. If you run a nine-minute pace you end up at an enviable 3:56. But when I remember my three marathons, instead of remembering the fun I had or the feeling of accomplishment, I remember the “bad numbers” of the clock: 4:06:18, 5:02:04, and 4:31:32.
Quantification has been perhaps the chief characteristic of modern science, the “abstract key that turns the lock of the physical universe” (Polkinghorne). And why not, when you consider what the theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner referred to as “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining our modern physical world. In some deep sense reality is mathematical, causing Wigner to remark that “it is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here.” Other fields are judged to be “scientific” to the extent that they are similarly quantified and quantifiable.
In business, the founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, revolutionized the computer industry with his observation in 1965, which has remained remarkably accurate, that the performance of computer memory chips would double about every 18 months, and that their cost would drop. In other words, computer power grows exponentially and not just arithmetically. Any chip maker that fails to understand that will be out of business in short order.
In academics, the predictors of success, despite vocal disclaimers and detractors to the contrary, are almost completely quantified in terms of one's GPA and SAT numbers. If you want to apply to college you would do well to look at the rankings of colleges like those found in US News and World Report, which grades schools in eighteen different categories and then assigns them an overall score. College applications thus might be thought of as matching my numbers with an institution's numbers for a suitable fit.
One of the more fascinating quantifications in modern life has been that of space and time. Daniel Boorstin tells this story in his wonderful book The Discoverers. Problems with lunar and solar calendars eventually moved us from planetary time to clock time. Time was no longer marked by the rhythm and flow of nature but by “the accumulation of discrete measured moments” or by “an endless series of uniform units.” In one sense this was a liberation, but in another sense we have since learned that we have been put “under the dominion of a machine with imperious demands of its own.” Who has not felt the “tyranny of the urgent”, that is, the rule of clock time? The eventual determinations of latitude and longitude quantified space, revolutionized cartography, and made navigation of the seas more accurate than ever.
In his book The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250–1600, Alfred Crosby tries to account for the remarkable success of European imperialism. “They were unique in the degree of their success. They may retain that distinction forever, because it is unlikely that one division of the world's inhabitants will ever again enjoy such extreme advantages over all the rest.” What explains this domination?
Ethnocentric answers, popular in the nineteenth century, are clearly wrong. In previous works, Crosby himself has also suggested biological and environmental advantages, as has Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. But these had limited explanatory power. Eventually Crosby came to see that around the late Middle Ages Europeans developed a new mentality, a new model for understanding reality.
A quantitative model was just beginning to displace the ancient qualitative model. Copernicus and Galileo, the artisans who taught themselves to make one good cannon after another, the cartographers who mapped the coasts of newly contacted lands, the bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who managed the new empires and East and West India companies, the bankers who marshaled and controlled the streams of new wealth—these people were thinking of reality in quantitative terms with greater consistency than any other members of their species.1According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1571 the neologism “pantometry” entered our lexicon to describe this universal measurement of all things. In his study Crosby explores the quantification not only of time, space, science, and business, but even music, painting and bookkeeping.
Put another way, I think our obsession with quantification signals the triumph of rational efficiency at almost any cost. That is, almost any other ends are subsumed under the necessity of quantitative efficiency—more, bigger, better, faster, and so on. This has been a blessing in some sense; who wants to take a train if you don't know exactly when it will depart or arrive? But rationally efficient quantification has come at a cost.
Jesus warns me that my life does not consist of the quantity of my possessions (Luke 12:15), or, by extension, any other quanta—the size of my house, the prestige of my job, the make and model of my car, the pedigree of my school and so on. But this is precisely what I find myself doing sometimes, should I meet a new person who begins to ask me about who I am. I tell them how many books I've written or countries I've traveled in, as if the quality of my identity was defined by the abundance of these quantities.
Jesus reminds me that much of what is good, important and beautiful in life cannot be reduced to quantifiable units or rational efficiency. This was the lesson that Martha had to learn (Luke 10:38–42). She invited Jesus to her home and immediately busied herself with the details of hospitality; the text says that she was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” No doubt she was an efficient woman. Her sister Mary took a different posture, perhaps judged as lazy from Martha's obsessed perspective, for she “sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said.” When Martha complained to Jesus and asked him to rebuke Mary, the Lord responded, “Mary has chosen what is better.”
We are right to object when society makes us “feel like a number.” God save us from treating each other, and even our own selves, like that. Lord, make me more like Mary.
- Alfred Crosby, The Measure of Reality (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. xi. Emphasis mine.
The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.