When the numbers don’t add up


‘A cynic: knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing’

Oscar Wilde

Digital wonderland

I sometimes like to play a mind-game with myself. I imagine meeting someone who is visiting from the London of, say, two hundred years ago. I love the mental challenge of explaining to them how the world has so utterly changed and going through all the key inventions and ideas that have contributed to that transformation.

There are so many aspects of the world we take for granted that would be utterly alien to such a time traveller. We might start by trying to explain our modes of transport, communication and entertainment. Then we’d need to defend our weird clothes, foreign food and bizarre tastes in music. Economics, politics, health and education would take a few days each to unravel. But the greatest challenge of all would have to be the digital revolution and how whole new worlds can be created through the manipulation of ‘digits’, basically 0’s and 1’s. Almost literally it is numbers that have created digitalised wonderlands that can be so breath-taking but are often all too deeply disturbing at the same time.

Drowning in digits

Working for much of my life as an accountant, I am particularly prone to the power of numbers. I’m paid to put a figure on everything. Nothing happens in a business without a sum being attached to it. I’ve recently started working for myself and now my every working minute has to be counted. If I go on holiday, look after the kids or even take time out for a potter in the garden there is an opportunity cost: the numbers start ganging up against me.

Then, as if there is no place to escape, in my role as a school governor the numbers also never stop coming. Everything that a child or teacher or Head can possibly attempt or achieve or fail at has to be measured and captured and reproduced on a spreadsheet, chart or league table.

If something can be measured, it’s almost certain that someone, somewhere has done the calculations and a quick Google search will unearth the data before you can put the kettle on.

I am old enough (just!) to remember stories from colleagues about how accounts would be laboriously compiled on manual ledgers then counted and crosschecked before being entered onto another ledger. Nowadays, thanks to spreadsheets, interminable figures, calculations, tables and charts can be strung together in just a few minutes that would have taken a team of clerks many days, not that many years ago.

The technocrats that run our governments, our councils, our schools and even our churches can only survive if fed constantly with a data-rich diet. If you can’t measure it and put it on a spreadsheet then it can’t be that important and certainly can’t, we believe, be controlled.

No management without measurement?

We tend to presume that if we can measure something, put a value on it, reduce it to a number we can get some kind of handle on it & know what it’s really worth. We know where we stand once we find out what the other person earns, how much his house is worth or what kind of qualifications he’s got. Our feeling of self worth can hang on the slender digital thread of Facebook likes, re-Tweets or Instagram shares. How often does our fragile ego stability depend upon a bunch of artificially constructed targets; breaking the 3 ½ hour barrier on next marathon; reducing our 18 stroke golf handicap; shaving a few seconds off the cycle to the office; getting our weight down by just enough grams in time to squeeze into the holiday swim suit.

We often live under an illusion. We are taught that measuring something means we can control it. If it’s not measured we feel that it’s not being managed. So we try and increase our efficiency by fitting more into our day, cutting down our commute or going on a time-management course. We start clock watching, multi-tasking, and driving ourselves harder. The fact is that we are allowing the numbers to tell us who we are; whether we shape up or not; whether we’re someone special. So instead of numbers giving us control and autonomy, they end up controlling us and robbing us of our dignity. If we care about numbers and scores and votes just a little too much, soon enough we’ll discover who’s in charge: us or the numbers.

Love doesn’t keep score…

My kids, I can’t help noticing, are becoming aware of the power of numbers. “Daddy?” they ask, “What’s the longest word in the world? Daddy- what’s the biggest number? Daddy-how old are you really”? But my kids don’t love me any less because I can’t run as fast as their school friend’s (much younger) dad or because my posts don’t get liked or because I’m constantly losing to them at board games. I’m guessing that when Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’ she was being ironic: love can’t really be reduced to scores and lists of ’10 ways to know whether he’s really in love with you’. Or as The Message translates 1 Corinthians 13, “Love… doesn’t keep score…”.

Don’t you hate being reduced to a series of measurements, scores, timings, votes, likes and dislikes? Our counting cultures obsession with measurements is an attempt to diminish me. My salary or the engine size of my car tells you nothing about my character. My ability to harvest likes or a share on social media says zilch about my integrity. If I come out top-cook on Bake-Off or top-dog on The Apprentice it won’t add a jot to my core identity. And if I can beat the whole world at the sport of my choice but don’t give two hoots for anyone else, as Paul would put it, ‘I am just a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal’.

The real digital revolution

I’m very glad that Gods arithmetic is lousy. He can’t seem to add up. 2 loaves plus 5 fish equals 5,000 tuna sandwiches. Give up everything for the kingdom, he says, and, voila; you get 10,000% interest on your investment. 2p in the collection from a poor widow comes to more than a cheque for £100k from a City banker. God’s amazing grace and reckless generosity screws up our calculations; it’s both free and priceless: it can’t be bought or sold and you can’t contain or measure it.

So, how about a revolution against the tyranny of numbers? Instead of counting calories we care more about multiplying kindnesses. Instead of dreaming of earning more loot we fantasise about how to spend less and give more. We replace Facebook likes with looking into the faces of those we dis-like. We forgive instead of keeping score. We ask how well we’ve loved instead of how high we’ve scored. Instead of pursuing grades we practice the graces.