The dictatorship of numbers

May 25, 2016
The dictatorship of numbers

We live in a mathematic world. Everyday, our lives are ruled by numbers: we wake up at 5:45, run for 5 miles under 1 hour, rush to get to the office by 8, attend a meeting at 10, take a 45-minute break at noon, try to finish most of our tasks before 4, to squeeze a yoga class around 5 if we are lucky, and then get home eventually between 6 and 7, to prepare dinner as quickly as possible (under 30 minutes as proposed by multiple cookbooks promoting work-life balance) using the 5-minute microwave cooking rice and eat it with exactly 8-ounce of protein and 2 cups of vegetables, as recommended by the Canada’s Food Guide, in order to keep our BMI between 20 and 25. We then relax a bit, but make sure to brush our teeth for at least 1 minute, and then get into bed before 10, to get a good 8-hour sleep.

And that’s only for a day. Sometimes, the pressure of the ticking clock makes its way in other areas of our lives, and affects us for a longer period of time. Women who want to get pregnant are a good example of that constant pressure we feel, but who has never been concerned with getting old, feeling anxious about not having enough time to explore all there is to see?

Numbers can also be sneaky. We stressed about the number on the scale, the pace of our run, the size of our jeans. We stressed about how much we earn, how fast our car can go, how much our house is worth.

We constantly measure ourselves with quantities of time, weight, distance. Numbers are an easy way to compare ourselves with others, and when looking of approval, we can rely on numbers to reassure us. I make more than him, therefore I must be better. I can run as fast as her, therefore I can drink that well-deserved beer. I can fit into a size 6 dress, there is no reason to doubt myself as a human being.

When we take a step back, we can easily see these irrational patterns, and laugh about it. As in economics, trying to calculate everything in order to plan, in order to prove that we are right can be tricky. Some things, the most important I believe, cannot be assessed by a chronometer, the amount of money in a bank account, or the number on a scale. Some things are simply there to be enjoyed, to be given and received, and there is no way you can calculate precisely how much they are worth. How much for the laughter of a friend? How much for a hug from your boyfriend? How much for the smile of your child?

When we rely on numbers to run our lives, we are in danger of getting swallowed by them, to forget other ways of getting proud of ourselves, of reassuring ourselves, of feeling great for other things we can’t quite measure. We are in danger of missing out on great opportunities we can’t put any quantitative value on, we are in danger of having our lives ruled by numbers. Mathematics are a great tool, we simply have to remember that it is indeed what they are: a mean to understand the world that surrounds us, a way to measure things such as time and distance so that we can meet up with the people we appreciate at the right time and place to spend more of these precious moments we can’t measure otherwise than by using a love scale.

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