Sunday, June 01, 2008
A remark by the French philosopher Edgar Morin ("We are hypnotised by economic growth. But we should consider both economic growth and contraction together: what must grow, what must contract and what must remain stationary.”) gets me thinking about numbers, and their role in the collapse of Western Civilisation.
Numbers now pervade every aspect of our civilisation. Obviously, in the binary systems of the all pervasive computers and digital communication systems, but more invidiously in the thinking behind our capitalist system.
It is the propensity of numbers to be for ever increasing, like the dizzying attenuation of the value of π. The global economy is driven by this propensity of numbers to continuously expand, proliferate, generate: growth targets, GDP figures, sales targets, share prices and dividends, profits and margins, all pushed ever upwards by the expansionist quality of numbers, regardless of the cost to the environment in the despoliation of the planet; or the cost to the human soul in the trivialisation of the culture.
But not only are numbers the driving force behind business. The arts and humanities have also been infected by quantitive thinking, in the statistical systems of numerical measurement, such as the behavioural competencies beloved of HR managers, the testing systems in education, the way the market (numbers again) permeates the production and consumption of art, books, movies, music, theatre…
Concomitant to this invasion of quantitative thinking is a corresponding loss of the qualitative, represented for me by the word. If the number represents (a spurious?) objectivity, the word embodies a warm human subjectivity, and in our culture now the word has been thoroughly degraded, emptied of its magic, stripped of its power to tell the truth. Viewing figures are more important than news or in-depth thoughtful analysis: the word takes second place to the mighty number.
What we need to save our civilisation is a return to the qualitative thinking of a Henri Bergson, or a William James, a Dostoevsky, (two times two is five is also sometimes a most charming little thing) or at the very least a recognition of the damage that numbers have done.