The Tyranny of Numbers

Intelligence quotients, consumer confidence indexes, coin-operated love meters -- the ways we attempt to make numbers out of our states of being are limited only by the different states of being we're capable of experiencing.

Some booed, some cheered, and some studiously ignored the moment. Recently, controversial outfielder Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run, breaking the previous record for career homers set by Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron in 1974. Even as Bonds triumphantly trotted around the bases, and as a wild scrum was underway in the bleachers for the souvenir home run ball (valued at $500,000), a variety of reactions to the feat were unleashed, having lain in wait during the seasons leading up to this moment as the certainty of the slugger's progress grew clearer -- and the legality of his methods in achieving the mark grew murkier.

Depending on who you ask, Bonds' alleged use of steroids is either, A) undermining the very fabric of baseball and our society at large, B) unfounded speculation meant to further demonize an athlete who refuses to kowtow to the sports media, C) something that can't be properly understood until all the facts have come to light, or D) hardly news in the face of a new football season. Outside of San Francisco (where he plays for the Giants), however, those who do hold opinions about Bonds tend to be a bit more uniform in their distaste, sighting his incredibly rapid physical development from his rookie year to the present as sufficient evidence alone to condemn the slugger as a doper and a cheat.

Six days before Bonds' blast, as the controversy surrounding him gained steam, a different record was broken -- one occasioning far less vitriol (not the least because it occasioned far less notice). On the opposite side of the country from San Francisco, at the Nassau County Aquatic Center in New York, Ashrita Furman broke the world record for underwater pogo sticking. To celebrate, he returned to the pool after completing the feat and promptly broke his own record of underwater hula hooping, earning himself two entries into the Guinness Book of World Records on one day.

Ashrita Furman -- Underwater Pogo Jumping

Of course, compared to Bonds' record breaking, Furman's aquatic achievements barely registered notice, serving as also-rans that ended up on the oddities pages of news websites. But, however different, Bonds and his bat, and Furman and his pogo stick, were fundamentally up to the same thing: record breaking. This kinship may be hard to acknowledge, particularly for those who bear the biggest grudges against Bonds for tainting, as his critics see it, the integrity of one of the most impressive numbers in sports. How can Furman, with a scuba tank in an indoor pool, possibly contend with the importance of 755? Indeed, one might ask (and, admittedly, without much in the way of an answer), just what colossal number was Furman trying to best? How many people really take a crack at competitive pogo-ing above ground, anyway, let alone underwater?

Yet both Bonds and Furman were contending with the same undeniable and seemingly inescapable phenomenon: the prevailing need to quantify our world, to cram our experiences and abilities into numerals, and then measure them accordingly. Intelligence quotients, consumer confidence indexes, coin-operated love meters -- the ways we attempt to make numbers out of our states of being are limited only by the different states of being we're capable of experiencing. And that goes double for professional sports, where every endeavor is tracked and recorded in individual columns as careers are converted into calculations.

Baseball, in particular, is rife with numbers, with statistics for the game's seemingly most insignificant minutiae. Stats like a batter's Earned Run Average against left-handed pitchers while playing indoors and on the road seem superfluous to any sane individual, but proliferate in the sport, driven by a persistent mania that seeks insight into a wholly human (and so flawed and unpredictable) game through the objective crunching of cold, hard numbers.

Anyone who's seen Darren Aronofsky's Pi, however, can tell you that the answers to life's persistent questions do not come in numerical form. Briefly, that film's main character is convinced that the secrets of the universe can be unlocked through the use of mathematics. His attempts lead him deeper and deeper into psychosis, however, until (spoiler alert) he ends up putting a drill through his skull. Granted, it's an exaggeration, but the film does manage to highlight the pitfalls of our attempts to reduce the entirety of the world to known quantities. Success, undoubtedly, will elude us, and the resulting unhappiness that might lead some to auto-trepanation is the same discontent driving the Bonds controversy. In both instances, we're over-relying on numbers to produce in us a sense of reality's integrity.

In the final accounting, however, numbers aren't the end all and be all of our lives. In fact, they can be profoundly disappointing or completely irrelevant. Do we really need a record for underwater pogo sticking? And isn't any record simply the committed application of numbers? Consider the recent referee scandal that shook the NBA. Ex-ref Tim Donaghy recently pled guilty to charges that he leaked inside information about games, players, and officiating crews to gamblers in return for cash. Donaghy now faces up to 25 years in prison for his actions, which have cast a shadow over every game he took part in as an official. The problem that Donaghy poses for the NBA is that we can no longer trust the numbers of the games that he refereed. Were all the fouls awarded honestly? Were the final scores manipulated by his calls? It's likely that we'll never know. A little corner of the fabric of the sporting universe is now forever frayed by suspicious numbers. More specifically, though, it's been undone by our reliance on numbers in the first place.

Which leads us back to Bonds. Again, his critics are up in arms because they don't trust the integrity of his numbers. Is his home run tally artificially inflated by his steroid use? How many balls would have landed as pop-flys in the outfield, rather than scream over the wall? Much like the Donaghy scandal, though, it's doubtful that the full picture will ever be revealed. Fans are left, once again, unnerved by the unshakable suspicion that the methods we've been using to calibrate meaning may not be as sound as we once thought.

And meaning is really what it's all about. Numbers allow us to gain a purchase on the often slippery surface of human endeavor. At the same time, though, they often constrain, oversimplify, and oppress. Consider political polls, forever dividing a people against one another. The category with the tallest bar graph wins. Categories themselves, for that matter, would lump our spending habits, product preferences, even our moral values according to whether or not we fit a numerical demographic. Our weights and clothing sizes are simply more numbers, used to define us on terms not of our making. And just what insight is gained by all this rampant quantifying? The realization, according to the old adage, that there are three kinds of lies in this world: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

So what is to be done about the problem? More drug-testing is needed, we're told. More institutional oversight of our referees. More vigilance to yield better, more trustworthy numbers. Still, there's another alternative -- one that might strike a heretical chord, particularly in the world of sports: get rid of the numbers. I admit, it would be a radical overhaul. What would any sport be without numbers? The score, the time, the competition, the drama -- all these aspects would be either lost or greatly diminished in a numberless sports world. But so would controversy, so would uncertainty, and so would argument. What would be left? Just the games, and their fans and players.

The suggestion is admittedly highly unlikely, and smacks of the kind of utopianism that went out of fashion with love-ins and tie-dye. But, at the risk of flying a hippie freak flag, there is a political undercurrent to all this. The numbers in sports are there to assign competing values to human action. And assigning competing values to human action is a, if not "the", major tenet of capitalism. By watching sports, we're involved in brute competition that's encouraged by institutional regulation, and we're invited to display our enthusiasm for all of this through unchecked materialism, as we rush to throw money at the newest trends in team jerseys and logos. The competition, the pressure of time, the fetishizing of money and material goods -- all these things reinforce for fans the means and methods of capitalist practice.

A numberless sports world, then, would undo all of this. Really, a sport without numbers would cease to be a sport. But it would become something else: a game, the state at which all sports are born, without all the angst and pressure brought about by regulation and quantifying. To borrow from a radical artist of the past, it would mean "all the people, living for today." And it would take imagining, that the sun has dipped down behind the darkening roofs of your childhood neighborhood, and your tee shirt is soaked through with sweat. Your palms are caked with road dust, and you've yet to discover a half-dozen nicks and cuts from the hours you've been at play. Your legs shiver with exhaustion, but you play on, eager to make the most of the fading light. Looking up, you trace the course of the ball against the growing of the dim, an image you'll never forget, not bothering to record, or analyze, or count, a thing.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.