COPYWRITERS know that nothing focuses thought like a numerical fact. Numbers are hard, they have clarity, they sock home a point - 5.8 people sharing the average room in Lagos, Nigeria: Africa in big trouble; 54,246 car crashes a day: America gone mad; 100m trees cut down each year for US junk mail: forest holocaust.
Numbers are damn lies, too. Statisticians can work out that 922bn barrels of known oil reserves remain, and that we monkeys-out-of-control have burned 450bn so far. In other words, the 20th century has seen off a third of eternity's oil, but is that going to stop you tanking up tomorrow? Increasingly, numbers are something people have for Sunday brunch and excrete, the way people used to have Jacobean prose for Matins, and sin after lunch.
Yet numbers are huge. Recently, the fate of the kingdom seemed to hang on a couple of percentage points. The whole of public life was a bank, and flashing numerals were numinous. We already own more numbers than we think, from our bank or share account balance to a yard of digits attached to our individual names. Rowland Morgan, for example, has a numerical 'identity' consisting at least of his birthdate, driving licence number, vehicle number, passport number, national insurance number, bank account number, bank card number, PIN number, and telephone number, which in his case (you don't get my real PIN number) gives:
And we're more numerate than we think. Few of us would imagine we had a good grip of ancient Babylonian maths, based on a long- forgotten sexagesimal fraction system, but we use it to tell the time. When the super-computers crack the DNA, finally our characters will be numbers.
If numbers play axial roles at the junctures of democracy, they're rarely included in the rhetoric. It would not have done for Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister at war with the German Third Reich, to thunder: 'We shall fight on the 2,356 beaches, we shall fight on the 472 landing grounds, we shall fight in the 36.4m hectares of fields and in the 2.3m kilometres of streets, we shall fight in the 18,654 hills, we shall never surrender.' But it would still be a foolish editor who did not supercharge that immortal quote with the equally immortal figures, 1940, so numbers do have the last word. As in the graveyard. Who hasn't felt the throat constrict over the solitary digits on memorials of families felled by forgotten plagues? 'Beside her lie her children, Lucy 5, George 3, Arthur 2, Anne 1.' Sometimes age digits can tell a story in themselves, as in 'pop star Bill Wyman, 56', or 'Prime Minister William Pitt, 24'.
Numbers can be enjoyably crass, particularly stating things better left understated, and swathed in velvety night, like love-making, which statistically is called sexual intercourse, and occurs not at all for one in five adults under 35, according to Mori. The sex life of women over 55, too, evidently involves that ingenious numerical invention, zero (something, as Professor John McLeish records, that the ancient Hebrews failed to discover, presenting them with endless mathematical headaches), while a concupiscent four times a week or more is reserved for 10 per cent of those aged 15 to 34, which may not sound so many, until you consult the Annual Abstract of Statistics 1992, and discover that it represents 863,500 couples - who by the most conservative estimate would need 359,216,000 condoms a year to practise safe sex, or a worrying 6.8bn over their whole 15-34 career, which is good news for the London Rubber Company (LRC Products). On the other hand, the Kinsey Institute's latest report says that an average human ejaculation contains five calories of nutrition, and a regrettable 34bn calories would be going to waste in a hungry world, enough to feed a person for 46,575 years.
Numbers harden people to the hideous adjacencies so typical of the age. Does it display degenerate torpor or heroic tolerance that we feel only weariness on learning, for example, that 40 juggernaut-loads of lavatory paper get flushed down other people's lavatories every day? The throbbing queue of lorries carrying a year's loo-roll supply, jammed nose-to-tail, would stretch 138 miles, probably almost as far as the nearest significant forest. But we only shrug, wipe and polish. Does it matter that bleach provides another 2,900 roadtanker-loads (27 miles) for the collective sink every year? Or that parents deal with their offspring's emissions by throwing 'away' (away does not exist, it is a language fallacy) nearly 3bn disposable nappies, or 54 for every single person in the land? Far from shame, might there even be a perverse sense of late-industrial pride to be taken in the fact that the lavatory flushings of the United States equal the flow of the mighty Arkansas River every six seconds?
Perhaps computers have helped make people a byte blase about numbers. One of the daily 10-day weather forecasts issued by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading is the result of no fewer than 20,000bn computations. Embarked on by hundreds of Dickensian clerks just over a century ago, the set of calculations would still be underway, but they're accomplished in a mere six hours by a CRAY Y-MPS supercomputer. Somehow, the Met Office still goofed on one of the few hurricanes that have hit England since the birth of Jesus; so we are unsurprised to learn that pounds 1.2bn of automation at the Social Services department achieved only a 1.5-day improvement in processing income support claims, at a cost of pounds 33m an hour.
On the other hand, the hardware aspects of computers are all too real, like the 1,222 football fields of screen that flicker on DOS-based computers in the USA, or the 11 miles of nose-to-tail roadtankers of planet-wrecking CFCs hitherto required to clean their parts in factories every year. In Britain, it would take 872 miles of nose-to-tail juggernauts to transport the plastic computer casings used each year, and although the Ministry of Defence recently spent an average of pounds 71m annually on computers, it still managed to lose two pounds 60m bombers in the first few days of the 'smart' war for Kuwait.
Nevertheless, computers are largely responsible for the numerical platinum age which is opening up. Sooner or later just about everything will have been loaded into analog electronic records, creating an informational mesh. If freedom prevails, great waves of anomalies, discrepancies, contradictions, inconsistencies, absurdities, discontinuities, paradoxes, outrages, miracles and disgraces will wash over bewildered assemblers of 'Index' columns, who will become glaze-eyed Ruskinian aesthetes of statistics. Already, system-dynamics models of the world are proliferating. One, called the Worlds/91 model, works on a Macintosh - the simulated world at your fingertips. VR (virtual reality) will eventually be integrated with such systemic models, and people will have their bodies put on intravenous support while their minds disappear into cyberspace. Nearly 1m people work in UK financial services, most of them at terminals. How long will it be before a group of explorers from among their ranks decides to cut loose, put their digestive systems on drip-feed, and link brains directly to the hyperdimensional digital game?
If the idea of people disconnecting from their bodies and vanishing into the computer screen seems far-fetched, consider that a young child commonly spends two working years viewing a television screen before her first day at school. Even on laudanum, could Mrs Beeton have hallucinated 97 out of 100 British homes equipped with a television? Or people watching it for 24 hours per week? Are we not already getting into a symbiotic relationship with the video screen, when currently a child will spend over nine solid years watching television and 10 more working at a monitor in its remaining 65-year life?
More packaged software sells per day (dollars 63.5m) in the United States now than books (dollars 47m). Spending pounds 13.95 per pupil on books in our state school system per year sounds paltry until you number-crunch the TV licence fee and find that for a school of 500 staff and pupils, TV works out at 16p each, or 4p a channel. Quite a number, quite a crunch. Even journalists who move their lips while adding up darts scores occasionally feel moved to divide the profits of British Telecom by 31,536,000 and plaster the per-second figure over a front page in 160 point caps ( pounds 97). It doesn't take much wit to compare British Airways' published profits with its fuel budget and work out that for every pounds 1 it spends on untaxed fuel (at 55p a gallon) it makes 56p profit; that Rockwell, the US defence and aerospace manufacturer, makes dollars 816,250 profit an hour; or that Boeing's annual budget is bigger than Egypt's (dollars 29bn) - but how often do you read that kind of thing?
With number-crunching, a string of digits quickly becomes comprehensible, for example if it means more than 18,000 miles of cigarettes being produced in Britain daily (laid butt-to-tip) or girdling the world in a day-and-a-half. There's a particular grisliness about 114 abortions being performed world-wide every minute, as if some kind of Starwars were being waged in intrauterine space, but it is mellowed by the calculation that the world's population already grows at 177 per minute, on course for about 13bn by 2100. Numbers crunch like spices, with similar bursts of savour.
Figures are usually presented as value-free, but they are commonly loaded, particularly in the field of politics, which is why the government changes official ways of recording them so often. One of the best examples from our century is the French establishment's reluctance to publicise the scale of slaughter sustained by France in the First World War. For many years, no firm figures were available, and even today, a standard reference source such as Quid is confused on the topic. It is obliged to cite the US War Department on France's losses, putting them at 1,357,800 killed, and 3,395,000 wounded, out of 8.4m mobilised. For French men the odds were better than 50-50 on getting killed or wounded by an attacking German in the First World War. It is a heavily value-charged number, still loaded with political Semtex.
A controversial new book about loaded numbers, Accounting For Growth, questions the ethics of Britain's 100,000 chartered accountants, arguing that company growth is often a feat of prestidigitation. Accounting For Growth should be controversial, not for its charges against accountants, but for its mindless assumption, shared by most accountants, of the virtue of growth itself. It will soon be seen as the great gormless innumeracy of our age, akin to the ancient Hebrews puzzling over the non-existence of zero.
Blindness to our epoch's missing zero, zero growth, means that although the most precise calibrations indicate that fossil fuel profligacy is driving us inexorably towards climatic upheaval, we insist on driving cars instead of sitting in car simulators at home, visiting people instead of video-phoning them, shipping goods across continents rather than finding local sources.
Instead of laying fibre-optic co-axial cable, the highways of the future, the Department of (Road) Transport allows enough stone to be quarried for motorways, trunk and local roads to fill a jam-up of juggernauts stretching 41,477 miles, or from London to Capetown and back three-and-a-half times each year. At this rate, the transformation and release of us bipedal monkeys into a hyperspace of pure information, simulated experience and 'virtual' everything, cannot occur too soon, can it?
GOVERNMENT GREYNESS INDEX
Average working day's expenditure on monitoring air quality planned by the Department of the Environment: pounds 31,000
Average working day's expenditure on the government ministers' limousine service planned by the Department of the Environment: pounds 31,538
Current energy efficiency research budget of the Department of Energy: pounds 11,000,000
Current nuclear fast-breeder reactor research budget: pounds 84,600,000
Average annual aid to Bangladesh 1987-90: pounds 60,600,000
Average annual spending on computers at the Ministry of Defence 1986-90: pounds 71,100,000
Current annual solar energy research budget: pounds 2,000,000
Current annual nuclear energy research budget: pounds 94,100,000
Total annual central government support for the national theatre companies: pounds 32,000,000
Annual pay and expenses of UK military bands: pounds 62,000,000
PACKAGING SHAME INDEX
Miles of nose-to-tail juggernaut loads of UK plastic packaging produced each year: 559
Tonnes of Britain's 455,000 annual tonnage of household plastic packaging that is recycled: 208
Miles of nose-to-tail juggernaut loads of plastics materials imported to Britain per year: 1,038
Plastics processing plants in the UK: 3,965
High estimate of plastics recycling plants in the UK: 60
Population per recycling or waste-reclaiming business in Greater London: 267,000
British steel cans dumped, littered or burnt per day: 22,684,000
British aluminium steel cans dumped or littered every day: 10,000,000
Supertanker loads of litter estimated to enter the sea every year: 65
Plastic containers estimated to be thrown into the seas every day: 450,000
Miles of juggernauts loaded with one year's US packaging waste: 24,000
A book based on Rowland Morgan's Index column, 'Planet Gauge 1993', is published by 4th Estate at pounds 4.99.Reuse content