By the Numbers

There’s no denying the importance of numbers. They pervade our lives whether we notice them or not. They’re in the prices at the grocery store, the length of our shirt sleeves, and the sizes of the crowds we walk through every day. They’re in the news story about the invention that will decrease a problem by X percent and the weather forecast that dictates how many layers we’ll wear today. There’s no escaping those digits.

Counting Numbers

Numbers form a common language that lets us understand each other. When someone says, “After exiting the library, take a left at the 4th intersection,” we know exactly where to make that left, even if neither of us knows the name of that street. If we’re told, “That will cost $5.10,” we know exactly how much money we owe. Imagine living in a society where we didn’t have numbers. How would we know what time to arrive at a meeting? How would we know how long to wait for an appointment? How could we build the complex structures that house us, protect us from the elements, and come with all the technology that keeps us living comfortably?

Ordering Numbers

Numbers also give us order. Imagine trying to furnish a house by the memory of how big a room felt, instead of having measurements of the dimensions of the room. Or think of how hard it would be to track the orders a store received, and how to determine when to restock. Would it even be possible to run a company without knowing how many employees you could afford to hire? Without numbers, we couldn’t know the capacity of a building or figure out ways to keep people moving through that space efficiently. There would be no averages, no minimums, no maximums. There’d be no accurate concept of time. Most of our technology wouldn’t even exist without the humble 0 and 1, whose massive powers now drives entire economies and governments.

At the same time, though, are numbers beginning to dictate our lives—perhaps a little too much? For instance, I find myself asking, “What’s the temperature in here?” when I really should be asking, “Does it feel cold in here?” In the end, who cares what digits are on the thermostat screen? I’m often skeptical of what’s shown on the screen, anyway. If I’m cold, then I should don my sweater or jacket. If many people in the room are cold, then maybe it’s a good indicator to turn on the heat or look into the building’s insulation. Or what other actions could we take so we all feel warm and comfortable despite our discrepancies in “running hot” or “running cold”? Of course, numbers allow us to measure how much energy we’re using and remind us to be mindful of the resources we put to use. There’s no denying the need for that. But do we live simply to wave our energy bills in the air? To tout how “green” our community is compared to that other community? Or do we live to improve the quality of our lives, one step at a time? Do we focus on the kilowatts of energy we consume each month, or do we focus on finding alternatives to our reliance on electricity?

Dictating Numbers

Or for instance, it’s common to hear businesses touting profits, margins, team sizes, and the amount of complaints they squashed over a given month. We’re trained to think that higher numbers equate to success. But are people happy in their jobs? Do they feel like they are contributors to success and that they have value? Are they given the freedom to contribute to the team and solve problems? Or are they tied up by budgets and hours and mindlessly completing X items on the list?

Regardless of what the numbers say, do we feel like things are getting better? A metric can go up 0.5% or down 0.85%, but if we can’t see the difference by being in a situation, how much does it really matter? Do we simply acknowledge the minor “improvement” and hope that this will be a long-term trend that we will benefit from in the next century, or do we continue to try new things that help us feel better? Forecasting and trends are simply projections, not reality. At the end of the day, do we believe we’re moving in the right direction? How do we get more people to work towards the same goal? If our political and economical climates are of any indication, data certainly hasn’t unified us. Maybe it’s time to focus on how we’re feeling and what we want to do about it.

What if we focused more on what we need to do, and less on the minutia of why the data says we should? In the end, it’s not the numbers that matter—it’s what we need to do because of the factors they’re counting. Numbers are only so useful in their ability to measure, organize, and provide metrics. It’s up to us to figure out what do with that information, and no number will ever do that work for us.

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