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?