Homo numeralous: Decimal literacy and modern everyday digit normalcy

What does it mean that we are living in a ‘digital age‘? Yes, ‘digital’ is often a synecdoche that refers to ‘computrised,’ in the same way that ‘technology’ came to be denote ‘electronic/computrised technology’ and ‘media’ often means ‘news-/electronic/broadcast media.’ But I argue that there is something profound in calling our age ‘digital.’ In making digits the hallmark/emblem of an era.

The other morning I observed digits in my morning commute.

I left my house number #, about # minutes before #:## which leftme enough time to catch the ### bus. I bought a ticket for # days starting from the date ######, for £##.##. The woman behind me bought # tickets and paid £#, which gave her the change of £#.##, (a simple mathematic operation that everybody now knows to make). She did not pay for # children who were under # years old. I sat in the front seat and noticed the various numbers written on the bus. There was a telephone number, a fleet number, numbers of approved units (passengers and weight), percentage of lights, and so on. My ticket hosted so many more numbers, of bus, time, driver and ticket, and on the driver’s radio they spoke about road number ## and a value-numbered speed, not too far from the legal number-value.

Looking at my smartphone, I keyed in a code made of a number of digits. Then, on the top appeared various numbers representing the quantified temperature, time and percentage of battery. Below were other numbers indicating the notifications I had pending over each application’s icon. Of course, I could also then call, or text, or listen to the radio, look at the calendar, calculate distances or calories or currencies, or log in to my bank account – all with a small number of numbers. But I read the news, that reported on # percent (or points) in politics, some percentage and numbers in ‘the economy,’ wether, dates, various statistics, and numbers of comments. All entries were numbered and dated too.

Try it, see if i’m exaggerating. Look carefully around you and at your phone screen and see how many different numbers talk to you. These numbers are invasive. They order (e.g. house numbers), count (notifications), name (code, bus line, or telephone numbers), calculate (cost change), quantify (like dates, time, weight, % or °). You get the point. These ten digits are everywhere. Start noticing them.

The numbersociety is the result the ‘democratisation of math,’ the popularisation of numeral (and decimal) literacy. But what would be challenging now is to think about numbers through technological determinism, as a technology, a device, that has come to shape more than science or math, that organises knowledge/sense in the broadest sense. That we don’t only use numbers to think, but that we think numbers, or think numerally, period. That to think is to number/enumerate and the other way around.

Put differently, I suggest the hypothesis that this ‘numbercy’ is not meaningless, but that numbers literacy in particular brought an epochal global order, or a shared language, that affects thought and languages in latent ways, and which work closely together with, and maybe even operates, the ambition for rationality, effectivity, ‘factuality,’ (fake-)accuracy, modernity (or supermodernity/liquid modernity/late-modernity), meritocracy, marketism, etc. In other words, that it is not only that the number regime holds a quantifying logic to our contemporary everyday life, but that perhaps it also templates what and how we think about non-numbered things.

We may have never been modern, as Latour suggests, but numbers were already always there to help us think about/through our modernity ideal, in ways that can suit other Latourian thoughts (or Knorr-Cetina-ian) on how non-human things (in this case, abstract) are part of society. Like modernity is the true end of hisotry, numeral mechanisms represent eternity: with 10 digits alone we can practically touch infinity, in a flawless – yet hypothetical- system. Any mathematics and every history must always be thought through a stable irreplaceable comprehensive global omnipresent meta system, or doxa, that adjusts, includes and consumes everything.

Everything is supposedly measurable, or calculable, or orderly (with the exception of the random naming-numbers, and we also have the potency to know when it is which). We are informed by these quantifiable notion myths, which in actuality are only approximations (because there is no such thing as ‘accurate’ in the ‘accurate sciences,’ as all empirical measurements are approximations of ideals). Thus, numbers are an emblem of the false accuracy, just like our modernity.

Now, can we think of a world without numbers? Can we think of the world, not through numbers? Is there anything innumerable? Can you evaluate them without numbers?


2 thoughts on “Homo numeralous: Decimal literacy and modern everyday digit normalcy

  1. Owen Dempsey

    I agree that the ‘numbercy’ is not ‘meaningless’, and that numbers literacy helped to bring about a global epochal order.
    I think that Descartes’ cogito, ensured a sense of a human subject that has an independent mind (or consciousness), free to choose his own destiny, and that this kind of ‘thinking freedom’ ruled the market place where the labourer is free to sell his labour to his legally equal partner in this exchange, the buying capitalist. Both money as the universal equivalent, and the exploitation of waged labour, have led to the desire for surplus value, and it is this desire and the search for satisfaction that provides jouissance and ‘meaning’ for our lives, and this is dependent upon ‘numbercy’.

    The capitalist epoch produces and depends upon surplus value through exchange, and this is only possible through numerical calculability (and forms of money), all other thought and representations become increasingly exploited as commodities and in the process are enumerated. And this includes things like affect, happiness, mental health, risk of future disease, and so on.

    As Lacan suggested, once jouissance becomes calculable ‘this is where the accumulation of capital begins’.

    The digital ‘byte’ infinitesimally divides and multiplies, and can (through computerised algorithmic machines), transform the body itself through degradation and re-constitution, into a numerical signifier of, say future risk of biological disease, it is abstract, and as digital, infinitely malleable, as a kind of zero-institutitional-form that enables the inauguration of the digitalised symbolic exchange of ‘risk’ for technology consumption.

    I am interested in how ‘risk’ is digitalised as a malleable industrial commodity, ‘shape-changing’ to ensure sufficient desire is induced by those ‘paying’, or ‘paying-on-behalf-of’ others.
    I am interested in how ‘evidence’ on cost-effectiveness uses QALY data, where the QALY is the necessary but impossible zero-institutional-form for symbolic (semantic and economic) exchange in the market and science fora.

    I am interested in how neoliberal governmentality ‘speaks’ discourse that pushes any limits on expenditure ‘out of language’, so that there shall be no threshold to the sacrifice of cost and effectiveness, to ensure continued production of surplus (value, semantic and economic).
    The numbers we voraciously consume speak to a chain of sliding signifiers, where each signifier, in turn, provides an ‘enjoyable’ sense of anticipation in its implicit promise of satisfaction through (numerical) knowledge, but doomed to fail of course so that, without pause, we move onto the next signifier.

    To address your final question:

    In capitalism we cannot think outside numbers, the calculable, all value is calculable. The number-symbol exchanged in the marketplace is the vehicle for the search for the surplus we desire.


  2. Pingback: Now, can we think of a world without numbers? | My Own Private Medicine by Owen Dempsey

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