Cold Calculations

Numbers, like the dire 500,000 in the news, are useful barometers but do not tell whole stories.

by Vince Farinaccio

In 1969, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote about the “half-a-million strong” who attended the Woodstock Festival. It was estimated that 500,000 flocked to the three-day concert in upstate New York during an August weekend, stalling traffic, turning highways into parking lots and transforming a music event into a muddy, rain-soaked affair.

Mitchell says that “everywhere was a song and a celebration,” in her musical account, “Woodstock,” and for decades it has been the image associated with that “half-a-million strong.” Yet, before the close of the 1960s, a California outdoor festival at Altamont needed only a single digit to earn it a place in history books—the killing of an audience member during a Rolling Stones set.

Numbers help us to understand and clarify historical moments. Mathematicians proudly note the unwavering, predetermined value of numbers and their inability to occlude or evade. They lack the mischievous behavior of words. But, without context or application beyond a formula or graph, they also lack warmth. ‘500,000’ is a calculation and a far cry from the emotional resonance of “half-a-million strong.”

Several weeks ago, ‘500,000’ was in the news again. It was the latest tally of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S., and that same number which describes the Woodstock attendance took on a tragic context made all the more heartbreaking because it is happening now.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, a worldwide total of 21,000,000 lives were lost to the flu, with U.S. deaths numbering 675,000, an amount not very far from our current figures. But to give it context, the 675,000 deaths from influenza total more than the combined U.S. casualties in World War I and II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, according to online sources.

In today’s world, numbers work overtime without vacations, coffee breaks or an end-of-the-day drink with colleagues. They are too busy to engage in such frivolity. So, they tally our losses but are unable to mourn them, arrive at statistics but are incapable of fretting about or enjoying them and, in the case of algorithms, decide what we should buy, listen to, and watch without ever knowing who we are.

Earlier this month, Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, released his latest novel, Klara and the Sun. On the surface, the book is about Artificial Intelligence or, rather, an Artificial Friend who serves as a governess, but the author recently discussed with the New York Times Magazine the concerns that led to his new novel.

“One of the assumptions we have in liberal democracies,” he told Giles Harvey, “is that human beings are intrinsically of value, that they have a value that is not conditional on what they can contribute to the larger society or to the economy or to some sort of common project. If it starts to look like we can be reduced to the point where we’re just a bunch of algorithms, I think that seriously erodes the idea that each person is unique and therefore worthy of respect and care regardless of what they can or can’t contribute to our joint enterprise.”

In 1864, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky published Notes from the Underground, a fictional memoir by an outsider who confesses to the reader his outlook on Russian society and thought. In a particularly playful moment, the narrator posits that 2 + 2 = 5, daring us to use our free will to accept or reject logic as we see fit. This, he affirms, is what it is to be human. “I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing,” he explains, “but, if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing, too.”

The rules of math dismiss such a notion outright. But the human imagination, free from regulation, can embrace such contradictions with the most mischievous of smiles.

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