Sunday, February 24, 2013

Numbing Numbers

by Drew Martin
There is no numb in numbers; the words are not related in English, but it is a curious overlap, and perhaps a factor in viewing numbers as something impersonal in our culture, although this seems to be a common thought around the world. The definition of numb is being deprived of physical sensation, and lacking emotion or feeling. Numbers might identify with this if they had a mind of their own, or do they?

I recently read the Adweek article, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, which is about quants (quantitative analysts) taking the adworld scene by storm.

The number of ad campaigns based on algorithms doubled last year versus 2011. In the coming years, they are expected to account for nearly half of all campaigns, according to Forrester Research. Meanwhile, this year the world’s catalog of digital data is expected to reach some 2.7 zettabytes—an amount of information so large it would take 700 billion discs to store it all.
By itself, all that data is useless, naturally. That’s why numbers people are in such high demand—not just any numbers people, but creative quants who can keep pushing online ads to the next, more sophisticated level.

The thing is, we really love numbers even though we often dismiss their true meaning and importance. I watched Moneyball last night, in which Jonah Hill plays a young statistician who changes the game of baseball by using quantitative analysis as the brains behind scouting for the Oakland A's. Moneyball is really a look at how numbers and statistics are culturally received. It is not just a computer-age phenomenon, but something in the fabric of our history and time itself. It is the story of Arabic numbers with their decimal place and the introduction of zero. It is the explanation of the cosmos as Kepler mathematically worked out Brahe's renewed observations of the stars and planets, and it is also the story behind the greatest misstep in the history of science; Charles Darwin's snub of Gregor Mendel's theory of genetics. Darwin was a brilliant thinker who created a world wide web of information through his extensive travels and species collection, as well as through his thousands of correspondences to scientists around the globe, and yet he barely looked at Mendel's work.

If there is a lesson here, it is that instead of waiting for the mathematical structure to be teased out, an approach through math is a worthy pursuit. I am sure there is an algorithm, which would explain the cultural resistance to a quantitative approach that would reveal the fundamentals of something first cracked open by the human mind.