A letter from the future about numbers

It’s an odd now looking at early 21st century content in the Internet Archive. So little nuance.

It feels a little like watching those old black and white movies. All that colour which was just right there. But now lost. Easy to imagine that life was just monochrome. Harder to imagine the richer colours.

Or at least hard for me. There are AIs that will imagine it all for you now, of course. There have been for a while. They’ll repaint the pictures using data they’ve gleaned from elsewhere. But it’s not the film that is difficult to look at. It’s the numbers.

How did you manage with just those bare numerals?

If I showed you, a 21st century reader, one of our numbers you wouldn’t know what it was. You wouldn’t be able to read it.

Maybe you’ve seen that film Arrival? Based on a book by Ted Chiang? Remember the alien writing that was so complex and rich in meaning? That’s what our numbers might look like to you. You’d struggle to decode them.

Oh, the rest of it is much the same. The text, emojis and memes. Everything is just that bit richer, more visual. More nuanced. It’s even taught in schools now. Standardised, tested and interpreted for all. It’d be familiar enough.

You struggle with the numbers though. They’d take much more time to learn.

Not all of them. House numbers. Your position in the queue. The cost of a coffee. Those look exactly the same. Why would we change those?

It’s the important numbers that look different. The employment figures. Your pension value. Your expected grade. The air quality. The life-changing numbers. Those all look very different now.

At some point we decided that those numbers needed to be legible in entirely different ways. We needed to be able to see (or hear, or feel) the richness and limitations in the most important numbers. It was, it turned out, the only way to build that shared literacy.

To imagine how we got there, just think about how people have always adapted and co-opted digital platforms and media for their own ends. Hashtags and memes.

Faced with the difficulty of digging behind the numbers – the need to search for sample sizes, cite the sources, highlight the bias, check the facts –  we had to find a different way. It began with adding colour, toying with fonts and diacritics.

5—a NUMBER INTERPOLATED.

It took off from there. Layers of annotations becoming conventions and then standards. Whole new planes and dimensions in unicode.

42—a PROJECTION based on a SIGNIFICANT POPULATION SAMPLE.

All of the richness, all of the context made visible right there in the number.

27-30—a PREDICTED RANGE created by a BAYESIAN INTERPOLATION over a RECENT SAMPLE produced by an OFFICIAL SOURCE.

180—an INDICATOR AUTOMATICALLY SELECTED by a DEEP LEARNING system, NO HUMAN INTERVENTION.

Context expressed as colour and weight and strokes in the glyphs. You can just read it all right off the digits. There and there. See?

Things aren’t automatically better of course. Numbers aren’t suddenly to be more trusted. Why would they be?.

It’s easier to see what’s not being said. It’s easier to demand better. It’s that little bit harder to ignore what’s before your eyes. It moves us on in our debates or just helps us recognise when the reasons for them aren’t actually down to the numbers at all.

It’s no longer acceptable to elide the detail. The numbers just look wrong. Simplistic. Black and white.

Which is why it’s difficult to read the Internet Archive sometimes.

We’ve got AIs that can dream up the missing information. Mining the Archive for the necessary provenance and add it all back into the numbers. Just like adding colour to those old films, it can be breathtaking to see. But not in a good way. How could you have deluded yourselves and misled each other so easily?

I’ve got one more analogy for you.

Rorschach tests have long been consigned to history. But one of our numbers – the life-changing ones – might just remind you of a colourful inkblots. And you might accuse use of we’re just reading things into them. Imagining things that you just aren’t there.

But numbers are just inkblots. Shapes in which we choose to see different aspects of the world. They always have been. We’ve just got a better palette.

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