Comprehension of Numbers Challenging Global Civilization


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Number Games People Play for Survival


It could seem strange to use “numbers” to frame the challenge of global civilization. The obvious arguments for doing so may no longer have adequate traction. Little can be said about the consequences of increasing population numbers that has not already been said, or is effectively unable to be said (Overpopulation Debate as a Psychosocial Hazard, 2009). Much the same could be said for most of the quantitative criteria of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Such numbers, however seemingly critical to the survival of many, no longer carry real meaning on a global scale. This is becoming increasingly apparent with respect to resource use, emissions, environmental degradation, and waste disposal. Curiously the evident incapacity for remedial action is not a focus of attention, despite habitual optimism and a problematic track record (Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action, 2009).

More subtle is the metaphorical use of numbers with respect to critical descriptions of major initiatives, namely when “the numbers no longer add up”. Clearly the financial markets may be understood and described as a “numbers game” — with that description extended into the many forms of gambling. Individuals in any competitive environment may be highly focused on “getting their numbers right” with a view to promotion — with that perception extended to the quest for credits in an academic environment. Despite the lack of audience, analysis predicting impending crisis may be focused on the numbers — as with any criticism of such forecasts. More readily questionable is a widespread focus on auspicious or inauspicious numbers — in some cultures and sub-cultures.

The peculiar role of numbers is perhaps most evident in the seriously taken quest to become “number one” — especially nationally and globally. This can be seen with respect to global leadership, economic productivity in general, with respect to particular sectors, and in the competition between corporate entities. It is evident in rankings of educational institutions, in various measures of performance, and notably in gang cultures. It is curiously evident in the efforts to be recognized as the richest, the most beautiful, the fastest (in sport), the most intelligent, the most influential, and the like.

At the time of writing this quest for superiority is exemplified by the focus on the outcome of the FIFA World Cup for football — a notable preoccupation for gambling on a global scale, eliciting greater popular interest and engagement than the United Nations, if only in budgetary terms. Curiously the World Cup is also a focus for numerological speculation. More curious is the manner in which the opening of the World Cup has been accompanied by a major challenge to the pattern of order so painfully enabled in Iraq under the “number one” superpower — thereby highlighting the surprising extent to which unexpected numbers of people seek to establish their own hegemony based on other principles.

A more curious role is evident through tangible representation of “number one”, as in the architectural mega-projects to construct the tallest skyscrapers. Strangely complementary is the role of zero — with its own mysterious history (John D. Barrow, The Book of Nothing, 2001; Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, 2000; Charles Seife, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, 2000). In the current period, with increasing popular anxiety regarding the prospect of a future of “nothing”, this plays out through the function of a target, a goal, and associated sexual symbolism. With respect to current disruption to the pattern of law and order in Iraq, the strategic response discussed is the annihilation of those seeking to establish an alternative order.

The symbol of the World Cup offers one conflation of these elements — provocatively blending in sexual connotations. Aside from recognition of skyscrapers as collective penis surrogates, this conflation currently extends to controversies regarding the design of a football stadium of global relevance (Tomas Jivanda, The Accidental Vagina Stadium: design for Qatar’s first 2022 World Cup purpose-built stadium released, The Independent, 18 November 2013; Holly Baxter, Qatar’s accidental vagina stadium is most gratifying, The Guardian, 18 November 2013).

Such phenomena are matters of deep-seated controversy, evoking unresolved emphases on objectivity or subjectivity, about which little can be effectively said. The argument here therefore focuses on numbers “beyond one” with respect to their implication for psychosocial organization. Without indulging in number symbolism, the concern is to identify domains in which such implications have been variously appreciated. These include: work team size, sports team size, model factors/dimensions, project articulation, board/card games, and the cognitive constraints which appear to determine them.



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Jun 2014.

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