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By the numbers

It's a sad culture that identifies individuals by numbers and values lifetime achievements in terms of gross output and efficiency.

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I've always loved numbers and mathematical equations; math is constant and math problems always have correct answers. Compared to the rest of life, math is simple and logical. Numbers are the mashed potatoes of education; that's how comforting they are.

However, numbers are also terrifying. Today in the Information Age, numbers are everything. Each human being comes down to a string of numbers: social security, credit card, driver's license, birth date, ATM pin, etc. If you have a problem with a bill or a piece of equipment, no one can help you until your string of numbers is substantiated. Of course, most banks are so large that they can't identify you by face, so they must use your account numbers in order to figure out who you are and give you access to your money. Even education has become a matter of math. Once upon a time, we determined whether a person was educated by talking to him or her. These days, we go by test scores; it saves time.

I've generally thought of numerical branding as a necessity of modern life. This is how our society works. But now I question the "necessity" of turning people into numbers. In fact, I think it's dangerous.

Before we head to conspiracy-ville (where I do happen to reside), I'm not talking dangerous like The Net. Although identity theft is an actual concern in our world, the things that worry me the most aren't things like someone running up my credit cards or monitoring my internet activities. What I fear is the dehumanization of human beings. It's rather like the opposite of personification, which is giving human characteristics to non-human entities. Dehumanization is depriving human beings of human qualities.

One artistic incarnation of this dehumanization caught my attention as I viewed the Broadway Lights series performance of Les Miserables recently. Significantly, Police Inspector Javert refers to Jean Valjean only by his prison ID number. If you're not familiar with the story, Valjean is an ex-con who breaks his parole in order to have a clean slate in a new city, and Javert is the policeman who pursues him endlessly. Even though Valjean has become a successful and moral person in the new community at the point when Javert finds him again, he refers to him not by his name but by the number that was physically branded on Valjean's chest. Only at the end of the musical (I'm spoiling the ending here!), after Valjean saves Javert, does Javert refer to Valjean by his name. In the musical and in many other works of literature, a name is associated with a person's soul or real self. Javert refuses to see Valjean as a person with a soul, so he refers to him with a number.

Isn't this what we have come to? The use of numbers instead of names allows for dehumanization to take place. Names are people, numbers are accounts. This may be why customer service representatives are so rude on the phone; they don't associate you with a real human being, only as a series of numbers on a computer screen.

What happens when dehumanization occurs? It's easy to hurt someone you know only by number, so of course white-collar crimes, especially internet and computer-related crimes, are on the rise. That's only the tip of the iceberg, though.

As happened to Valjean in Les Miserables, when Jews were sent to concentration camps during WWII, the Nazis didn't use their names; instead, they used ID numbers that were tattooed onto the arms of the Jews. Even today these tattoos remind survivors, and should remind the rest of us, of a time when human beings were stripped of their humanity and treated as less than animals. Substituting numbers for names was a crucial step in allowing such a thing to happen.

What will it all come to in the end? Will we be remembered by our social security numbers? Our grades in school? Our bank accounts? How sad if we are.

A memorial service was held recently for a teacher who died last year, and, though it was intended as praise, someone mentioned that we knew this teacher had done a good job because her students had received such high test scores on their End-of-Course tests. This kind of statement is jarring, because it isn't true. We don't know that she was a good teacher because her kids scored well on a stupid multiple-choice test. We know she was a good teacher because her students came to the service and sang a song in her honor. Because they wept as they remembered her. Because she touched the lives of children and taught them to think. I can guarantee you that those students will have long forgotten what score they received on the state EOC by the time they become adults. But will they forget her? I doubt it.

It's a sad culture that identifies individuals by numbers and values lifetime achievements in terms of gross output and efficiency. Such a culture actually encourages crime and violence by encouraging dehumanization. Such a culture devalues contributions that are beautiful and precious.

As individuals, we are perhaps limited in our ability to "fight the system." But every person who rebels even a little helps to slow the process of change. We can at least remind each other that we are human beings by showing kindness to the people on the other end of the phone line, even if it's a customer service representative. We can remember that EOC scores don't tell us much about our children, except for whether they are good at answering multiple-choice questions. We can continue to sweet-talk our computers at work, while remembering to save a few nice words for our colleagues. It may be a losing battle, but I suspect it's one worth fighting. *

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