The Story of the Numbers

Beyond the sum of our fingers and toes, the primitive human brain gives up and labels the number “lots”. It is impossible for us to properly comprehend the exponential difference between, say, millions and billions, because “a million” just means “lots and lots”, and “a billion” just means “lots and lots, and lots more”. To us, a one in a hundred chance of winning the lottery – “unlikely” – is pretty much the same as a one in a hundred million chance of winning the lottery  – “very unlikely”. 

So, we are ill equipped to deal with the complexities of online communities whose citizens number in billions. 

The brain’s ingenious way of dealing with incomprehensible numbers is to break them down and store them inside symbols that can be made to relate to each other in systematic ways. Thus, we tell ourselves that “a billion” is “a thousand million” and “a million” is “a thousand thousand.” Actually, what “a thousand” means is pretty much beyond us, already, but this way of looking at big numbers seems much more manageable and reassuring.   

What we are essentially doing is imposing a generalised narrative – an unchanging formula by which we can predict how items will relate to each other – the story of the numbers – because we do not have the mental capacity to understand enormous pluralities as singular individuals. As long as the formula keeps working, we feel ok. If it starts to break down, however, we’re fucked. Imagine if you woke up this morning and 2+2 started equalling 5, then 3, then eleventy-one! 

If this happened we’d desperately search the data set for times when it still equalled 4. We’d try to discount the 5 and the 3 and the eleventy-one as anomalies, to find people who agreed with us, – to prove that the world still held together, was still predictable and controllable and that we weren’t insane and alone. This is, of course, confirmation bias.

We do the same thing with the frighteningly complex and unknowable phenomena that is other people: stubbornly wayward, refusing to see the world as we do or act as they should. We impose a generalised theory on them and dismiss contradictory evidence or testimony as anomalous, or pure contrariness or even falsehoods, on the part of our opponents. 

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