Here’s a great way to start a micro-rant but when I was younger (I will try not to disappear down the rabbithole of nostalgic reminiscing now), I remember discovering something rather odd about numbers. Apparently, they weren’t the same the world over.
At the time, my father used to encourage and work on my reading skills by getting me to choose a story from the newspaper to read to him while he made breakfast. I might not understand the story at the time but he would happily explain any complexities at the time – an educational aid I wish I had used with Jonas. Anyway, I remember reading a story regarding numbers: specifically a billion. I asked how many a billion was and was rather taken aback at first when my father responded with: British or American? The idea that two countries might decide to define the same number differently really didn’t impress me at all. While I could see the merit in the US billion being far easier to “understand”, I saw no reason to introduce it while we still had the option of referring to thousands of millions. Why be so impatient to get to a billion? Couldn’t we wait? Why did America have to speed up the process of running out of numbers?
I was proud of a British billion and couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in the world when it started to become clear that no one else was using it any more. But have people really thought about this – the “British” approach meant that we would only have to introduce a new number when we’d run out of old ones. A truly thrifty idea. An idea which makes sense in a world which has finite resources. Only when we get to a billion billion would we have to introduce a trillion and most of the so-called important things we talk about daily – economics etc – would take some time to catch up before we had to worry about what came next.
But now… well now we are already talking about a trillion and as we only really talk about growth when it comes to numbers, we will need to move on very soon – far sooner than if we waited for the numbers to run out.
What do we achieve by this? Does the fact of being a Billionaire mean so much to someone who might previously only have been a multi-multi-millionaire? Maybe we could appease them by coming up with an ultracool term… although I’m unable to come up with anything just yet – something along the lines of omni-millionaire appeals to a love of the ridiculous. Ideas welcome. But back on topic – although the Millionaire club might be less exclusive than it used to be – the OmniMillionaire club would still be out there. There’s also got to be a certain satisfaction in getting through saying nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine. Or would that first one be “thousand million”? Either way – I may now never know. Imagine the impact, though – we can all hear nine billion and think – ooh big number. But what about hearing nine thousand million? What? A thousand million, you say? Does that not hit home?
Instead, I think that the rush to get to the next set of “newness” is a further reflection of how much we think of as being disposable. In moving straight to the billion, we are skipping the hard work – we are making things much simpler, yes, but in doing so we are losing sight of the principles. One of my lecturers at Plymouth would always help me out because I could show him that I had, at least, grasped the idea of working through the principles – and my getting stuck or moving off in the wrong direction was easily traced. There was a time when programmers from India were highly sought-after because their experience was based on older languages and interfaces – they could work through from the mathematical equivalent of first principles.
Does it matter if we lose sight of some basic principles, though? I’m really not sure – I’m not sure we will know that until it’s too late, either. Maybe there will be enough of us to understand what went before but my point is that we are also subconsciously saying that it’s OK to skip the hard stuff. Is it? Didn’t we once teach how important the “hard stuff” was? And here is where I think we are losing out. It appears to me now that no – we don’t teach those things any more. I have several trails leading off from here so for now will leave this thought to mellow and see what happens when I pick it up again.