As a species, we’re really bad at certain things. Our brains just aren’t kitted out for it.
For example, numbers. Specifically big numbers. I’m an astrophysicist by education and a software engineer by profession, and have dealt with absurdly large numbers my entire adult life. But big numbers are hard for people to think about. Let’s look at an example.
Let’s take a big number: 2^256
This is a 256 bit or 32 byte binary number. It basically means 2x2x2x2x2x2x2…. and so on 256 times. How big does it sound? Written in standard form it is approximately a 1 with 77 zeroes after it. So how big is that number? Any ideas?
It wouldn’t be much of a post if I didn’t tell you. It’s big. Very big.
In fact, if you were somehow able to harness all of the energy in the entire solar system, the sun and all its planets, you still wouldn’t have enough energy to power a computer long enough to count that high. That’s how big.
Let’s take a much smaller number. Half of 256 is 128. 128 is a 7 bit number. Let’s go with that.
128. Sounds like a small number doesn’t it? 128 people died in Paris at the hands of armed cowards. Now suddenly it’s a big number. But why? What’s big about it? What is it about 128 victims of terror in one country that makes it so big?
4,400. That’s still a small number in the grand scheme of things. What if I told you that’s how many people will die today in China due to air pollution. 4,400. Every. Single. Day. Unfathomable isn’t it?
2,996. A bit smaller. This is how many people died in the attacks in the US on September 11 2001. The world changed on that day. The War on Terror™ began.
2,996. It’s a lot of dead people isn’t it? Isn’t it? 6,639. That’s how many Americans have died thus far fighting the War on Terror™, in addition to 50,000 injured.
Why don’t these numbers and our reactions make any sense?
I’m not trying to grief shame or guilt trip anyone. I’m as guilty as anyone else. I won’t post about the 4,400 Chinese people who will die tomorrow due to pollution. I won’t post them the day after either. Or the day after that – I’ll ignore their deaths.
The bottom line is that in order to care about people dying, we need an irrational, emotional kick. Those are two important words – irrational and emotional. There’s nothing wrong with an emotional response at all. Emotions are not something we can control easily. They come up, and we react.
But when you look at the numbers, not now, not tomorrow, but in the weeks ahead – when you look at the numbers, ask yourself the hard question – what makes me react to 128 dead in France when I don’t care that 4,400 are being killed every day in China by pollution.
Where does that emotional kick come from?
If 4,400 Chinese people were killed tomorrow in a terrorist attack, you can believe that we would all hear about it and all care about it. Why has dying at the hands of a terrorist been elevated in such a way? Who benefits?