Exiles from the Republic of Numbers

I was watching news television a few nights ago – it was a programme on the Afzal death penalty. As the CNN-IBN anchor aggressively postured on screen, the viewers were invited to SMS their vote on the hanging, which was updated constantly on screen. This seemed the most natural thing to do – people are asked to vote instantly on TV contests, social issues, sports etc. Telephone companies make massive profits in this system, which is shared with TV networks. That seems obvious. There is another story here, behind the obscenity of like sending in your votes on the issue of the death penalty. Never mind that many of these polls in news television are often carefully staged, a friend of mine who works at a network told me that when ‘voting’ is low, staffers are asked to reach for their phones or call their friends…

The other story is that of numbers and sovereignty. Growth rates, census figures, stock markets all give us a technique of understanding our lives, and of others. The explanation by numbers took a radical step in the 1980’s itself when the magazine India Today used desktop publishing software to produce 3-D images of numbers to great effect. With the spread of cheap computers and design software in the 1990’s the statistical image became ubiquitous, standing in as an explanation of the contingencies of elections, the weather, crime and public opinion in general. The more unpredictable, dangerous and contingent modern experience became, the more widespread the use of the statistical image as a knowledge form to explain the world. Multimedia design rendered an abstract knowledge form ‘readable’ for a larger audience used to moving between different media environments. Allied with the idea of ‘expert’ knowledge, and popularized by the digital interface, there is little doubt that statistics offers a significant response to the widespread anxiety and unpredictability of life under capitalism.

Statistics, as Ian Hacking has shown us in his book The Taming of Chance, was the 19th century’s most powerful legacy. The ‘avalanche of numbers,’ that Hacking says began in that century, also assumed a certain marking of human subjects. Those who conformed to the boundaries of statistical laws were ‘normal’, while those on the periphery were seen as ‘pathological.’ Today, numbers as media objects draw us to this world, tempting us with new possibilities: voting through the phone, the internet, assuring our sovereignty and citizenship at a time of flux. Unlike the cold statistics of the Plan or an economics textbook, we touch numbers in ways that were not possible before.

But tell that to the displaced people of the city who cannot get rehabilitation because they did not fall within some bizarre cut-off year – 1971, 1992 and so on. The explanation for their fate is a set of numbers, produced by courts and regimes. Documents and numbers, these are the great weapons of displacement and death in contemporary India far more than they ever were. Those who are outside the statistical present decided increasingly by courts and experts – these are the new statistical subalterns of the city. A giant reserve army of illegal residents in the Republic of Numbers.

Nevertheless there is a terrible reality of numbers in the present – we have a frighteningly close relationship to them. As much as I hate the idea of numbers as knowledge, I was disoriented by the statistically oriented stories of Muslim marginalisation that have come out of the Sachar committee report. You cant stay out so easily: you open the papers, watch the numbers flicker across the TV screen, scream in anger and demand better, ‘truer’ numbers. The more modern government deploys a theory of knowledge based on statistics, graphs as media, the more we produce counter statistics, our own numbers: ones we like and circulate and cite.

Can you ever escape them fully in a capitalist society where numbers, media and accumulation are all mixed up? Probably not. But next time they ask you to vote on someone’s hanging in the media through an sms, don’t reach for that phone to vote yes or no. Deny yourself a moment of sovereignty.

4 thoughts on “Exiles from the Republic of Numbers”

  1. Reliance on statistics( essentially numbers in variois shapes, intensity and combinations)
    is not new to the digital/nano age. Even in ancient times and regimes, numbers mattered, numbers counted and many a time ignored. True, today we are mired into numbers every
    moment, for every bit of understanding how the world functions! Whatever the regime, ca-
    pitalism or socialism. monarchy or oligarchy, all power structures need the aide of numbers
    to evaluate themselves, their power and reach. But we have also today the possibility to
    ignore them, to retain some sanity and clairvoyance, In fact like with animals, man has
    suceeded in domesticating numbers to make them work for you. Dial a certain number (say
    15) and you have the emergency medical ambulance at your door! Voting by sending an
    SMS might turn into a fiasco, but then we can train orselves to tame the numbers. And lo!
    they do behave, seeing us not nodding to all their diktats.

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