Empire of numbers

Photo by Markus Krisetya on Unsplash

By being surrounded by numerical data from which we determine ourselves, we come to see them as absolutes describing things in a neutral and natural way. These data are in fact a social construct. This book offers a history of the process that led us to quantify everything.

According to the author, science has followed suit rather than driven it. The geometrization that she practiced for a long time was not a quantification. Quantifying did not appear as an act of knowledge until the 17th century. Where did the need for unified units come from? Among other things, taxation! Old measurements referred to the human body and varied depending on the locality. A length could be measured in cubits, in arms, in feet; the surface of a land, in time necessary for a man to exploit it; measurements for storage volumes could differ from those for transport, etc. This complicating the collection of taxes, the authorities worked for the unification of the units of measure. This was done at the cost of an increasing disregard of them.

The movement towards abstraction is general (it is observed for the measurement of times, temperatures, etc.) and has made it possible to extend the notion of measurement to such a point that nothing escapes quantification. We measure intelligence, depression, give ratings to restaurants, universities, movies, hospitals… and individuals. Evaluated at work, everyone must always do more and better, which exacerbates the competition of each against all.

This book, unfortunately lax in writing, is full of information. Although balanced, devoid of partisan aim, it gives a harsh image of certain options adopted by our society. It just goes to show that scholarly words can be contentious!

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