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Numbers game

Sept 03,2018
Yang Sung-hee
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

We exist in numbers, whether we like it or not. We are sized up by numbers starting with our residential registration number, age, college year, corporate identification number, scores, grades and classes. We are incessantly asked how old, tall, thin or fat we are, how big our home is, how many others are in our family and how much we earn.

In “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery points out that an obsession with numbers is one of the biggest differences between adults and innocent children. “Grown-ups like numbers … But, of course, those of us who understand life couldn’t care less about numbers!” the author exclaims.

Numerals have become more powerful in the digital age. All information is codified in numbers. Algorithms count how many are reading an online article or posting and how many like or dislike them. It tells me how many followers I have and how many of them know each other. What numbers can do in the digital age is stunning. The most watched music video on YouTube so far is Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi’s Despacito that drew more than 5 billion views as of Sept. 2 since it was released on Jan. 12, 2017. It won’t be long before the record is broken.

Statistics are deeply connected with modern governance. A government makes policies, arranges and manages society based on data. The term statistics or statistik, first coined by Germans in the 18th century, means scientific analysis of data about the state.

Political historian Benedict Anderson famously called a nation “an imagined community” and statistics substantiate the “imagined” idea through numerical matters and essence as a map visualizes it. The ideology of democracy is defined by numbers — or the majority rule. To French philosopher Alain Badiou, the ideology of modern parliamentary societies was not humanism or law, but rather “number, the countable, and countability.”

The power of numbers stems from the belief that they are true to reality. Numbers nevertheless can lie. Miscount or intentional distortion and the limits in factorization of leaving out what cannot be easily measured challenge the truth behind the figures. Numeration has been born out of necessity, but it can be depoliticized by taking it out of political context. In the book “How Numbers Rule the World,” Lorenzo Fioramonti exposes how numbers can be abused as a means to reinforce control over markets and social and political life and quotes the famous saying that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” to underpin the persuasive power of numbers.

The recent replacement of the chief of the statistical office has been controversial. Instead of correcting a policy that has been hurting the economy, the government chose to sacrifice the head of the statistical office for the slew of poor data. By replacing the old head with a scholar who has advocated the government’s wage-led growth policy, all the government has managed to do is cast doubt over the validity of any information that the statistics agency releases going forward.

Instead of discussing pending issues, rival political forces will now wrangle over the credibility and representativeness of data. Meanwhile, the lives of the people will be getting tougher and tougher.

JoongAng Sunday, Sept.1, Page 34