“I” is a Number

Reading time: 4 minutes

Translation by AB – April 15, 2020

In 2009, Olivier Ertzscheid published an article entitled “Man, a document like the others1, which we strongly recommend (re)reading. Eight years already … At the time, at the beginning of the era that we could call the “connectocene”, Olivier Ertzscheid envisioned the internet as a net for capturing all possible documents, public and private, and for mastering a “documentary continent“. This huge collection involves massive indexing but above all, a stroke of genius, through the free supply of connected production and storage tools for our private documentation. We then understand that for each of us, a “digital identity” builds up which requires to be conceptually grasped by sociology, economics, politics, law … Olivier Ertzscheid therefore proposes this formula: “man is a document like any other”.

But today, man can no longer be considered only as a “document” indexed in a vast worldwide thesaurus: there is an avatar that comes, dynamical, what we propose to translate by the formula “man is a number”. The number is not only an index, the representation of a quantity or a measure: it combines, it is calculated, it is compared … And the stroke of genius is extended by the free supply of connected production tools, combining and storing the numbers that represent us.

The number has two cardinal economic virtues: it co-measures (it is a kind of universal currency) and it accumulates (it is the matter of equity). “Man is a number” is another way of saying homo economicus. In this meaning, it is therefore not new. What is new is the gigantic computing and storage power that we have, a power such that it can bring out from numbers a fairly credible virtual world as well as the economy of worldwide accumulation which governs it.

This digital world irresistibly brings to mind the 13th of Raymond Queneau’s “99 exercices de style2 that would be produced an unimaginable number of times every nanosecond:

At 12:17 p.m., in a bus on line S, 10 meters long, 2.1 wide, 3.5 high, 3 km. 600 from its starting point, when it was loaded with 48 people, at 12h17, a male individual, aged 27 years 3 months 8 days, height of 1 m 72 and weighing 65 kg and wearing on his head a hat 17 cm high whose cap was surrounded by a ribbon 35 cm long , calls out to a 48-year-old man, 4 months 3 days tall, 1.68 m tall and weighing 77 kg., using 14 words whose words lasted 5 seconds and which alluded to involuntary movements of 15 to 20 millimeters…

Let’s isolate this text and take it literally. In 1947, it was science fiction: the narrator can only be omniscient. In 2017, it is already less sure: using a GPS, Wikipedia files, Tinder profiles, a chatbot, a connected watch … this narration becomes possible (but also less funny …). In the digital world there are, in the same way, omniscient economic narrators and “magicians”. What remains to be understood is why we seem to assent to this very unbalanced game. Maybe it’s always been our taste for numbers, as the “Petit Prince” reminds us3:

Grownups love numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask you about the basics […] They ask you, “How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does his father earn? Then only do they think they know him.

Or today: how many likes, LinkedIn contacts, calories consumed, minutes of walking, alpha sleep? … We want “Quantified Self” and “Lifelogging” as we have always wanted to measure ourselves and other people. So, we are quite happy to provide enough to calculate ourselves, enough to present ourselves to the Big Calculator as if we were “Quenaldians” socio-economic subjects (multi-measured), even if this narcissistic desire can be mixed with anxiety4.

But let’s talk about what is coming, because our good will is no longer enough. The digital world has become too fast and complex to wait a) for us to measure ourselves b) for us to understand how to measure ourselves. This is why we will have / want to be covered with sensors, personal assistants, prostheses … before accessing any service. It is this exciting movement that we will now have to observe.

“Everything is number,” said the Pythagoreans. So “I” is a number, it’s quite Greek, finally.

1. Olivier Ertzscheid Hermès, La Revue n°53 – 2009 – L’homme, un document comme les autres
2. Raymond Queneau – 1947 Exercices de style
3. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – 1943 Le Petit Prince 
4. Candice Lanius pour thesocietypages.org mai 2015  The Hidden Anxieties of the Quantified Self Movement

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