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A Magazine for Sheffield

Exploring the preoccupation with systematising the world - and the dangers of mistaking those systems with reality. 

Numbers Brain Graphic

Before techbros, before Reddit finance edgelords, before Sky News anti-tax policy wonks, before technology as we know it, was a primordial condition I call Numbers Brain. The afflicted suffer two main conditions:

  1. A belief that it is practically possible to adequately represent elements of the human experience through quantitative numerical systems.
  2. A belief that the resulting system represents some objective fact, free of bias, prejudice and ideology.

In the 21st century, no one wants to propose a ‘regime’. Regimes are scary. They smell like World War 2. Instead, we can just follow the data; flat, chrome-embossed data, cold, human, impartial. A useful stooge to have in your back pocket, a straw man to shake a quivering finger at, pleading desperately, “It wasn’t me, m’lud, it were the numbers,” as your voice reverberates across the silent chambers of The Hague.

The DNA of What If The World But Numbers as a core pillar of polity and policy can be unearthed from the slowly-rotting head of liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. His theories of Utilitarianism were an exercise in cramming the entire human experience into discrete goodness or badness points. This exhaustive project, once complete, would allow anyone to make any kind of moral, judicial or practical decision just by smashing out an abacus and flicking the beads around for a spell.

As a practical method for doing justice it’s bent double under the weight of its own practical issues and bizarre ramifications.

There’s a growing body of evidence that we’re not fantastic at making decisions in our best interests. I say this as someone who is regularly wrong about my own preferences. So who is the governing body of what is good for who? If we could get over that and accept that all good decisions are the ones which provide the most ‘utility’, then all I’d need to do to justifying murdering people is to ensure I love murdering more than my victim hates being murdered.

Utilitarianism really ought to have been hoyed into long grass of cacked thoughts. But leadership has increasingly hidden the sticky fingerprints of ideology, bias and avarice behind opaque bureaucratic systems. The belief that in our skull is a utility-maximising supercomputer, forever crunching a risk portfolio of all future decisions, is still a core assumption of western political philosophy. Game theory, which attempts to model complex sets of decisions based on these assumptions, is “central to modern economics, political science and evolutionary biology” - a quote I’ve lifted directly from an Oxford University Third Year PPE Lecture Powerpoint. It’s quite literally stamped onto skulls at the Prime Minister Factory.

Just in case this needs saying: this isn’t a diatribe against numbers. Please do not take this out on numbers. If you have a number in your life, protect it, treasure it. This is about the repeated, constant habit of philosophers, policymakers and technocrats to preserve their ideology in a snowglobe of intersecting algorithms, and force us - the grey, shivering NPCs of their new reality - to live inside it.

Just over a decade ago, charities based on a modern form of Utilitarianism called Effective Altruism were founded. Giving What We Can, founded on the idea of using utilitarian metrics to maximise the effectiveness of charitable donations, has been pledged in excess of $2 billion.

The system they use to determine where to donate this money has unfortunately calculated that it isn’t cost effective to use it to combat climate change. Instead, most of their money goes towards combating malaria, while the climates that allow malaria to propagate are going to continue expanding across our warming planet.

A sister charity, 80000 Hours, advises people what career to follow to maximise their altruistic impact on the world. This advises against becoming a doctor in Sub-Saharan Africa, because there’s always people signing up for that. Instead it recommends people work lucrative jobs in the finance sector and increase their income as high as possible in order to donate even more money to charity.

William MacAskell, one of its founders, uses the example of Oskar Schindler in World War 2, implying that if there was a future fascist state government, it’d be morally permissible to run a munitions factory for them because you’d theoretically be in a better position to smuggle out refugees than if you opposed the regime.

The spokesperson for Effective Altruism and contemporary utilitarianism is Peter Singer. He’s gone big on defending a smorgasbord of gross positions. I won’t go into too much detail because it’s pretty grim, but you just need to shut your eyes and speculate about what might happen if you started assigning differing values to the lives of disabled people and were willing to credulously follow it into any dark cave of human morality and 21st century eugenics.

Singer is but one figure held in the thrall of a numbers game. But the core assumptions of making complex moral, judicial or political decisions based on a numerical framework are so widespread that no one is free from its wet tendrils. Our coronavirus response is sitting atop a massive grave piled 100,000 bodies high because all incoming problems are seen as a compromise between competing interests in a vast matrix of economic decisions. Your uncle must die so that Pret A Manger may live. How many children have developed respiratory problems for the sake of Costa Coffee?

When you create a system of any kind you define a framework which limits the scope of your operations. If you create a robot to be good at basketball, you’re never going to discover it’s also learned to bake a pie. If you base a charity around gaming capitalism with voluntary donations, it can never overturn capitalism. If you cannot imagine that society is ever going to create the conditions to give disabled people a decent quality of life, then you risk seeing them as expendable. You cannot question or overturn a system if you’ve bound yourself to it.

Any systems we create to manage our lives are just extensions of the values and ideologies of its creators. When those systems are entrenched in how we are governed, we start to see them as our objective custodians, instead of what they ought to be: a sumptuous dinner for history’s vast and unconquerable trash hole.

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