TEDxSV Talks

Posted: May 18th, 2011 | Comments Off

By Ron Gutman, Curator TEDx Silicon Valley

Numbers have always been at the center of innovation in Silicon Valley. Now a new concept (and what some would call a movement), Living by Numbers, is gaining significant momentum here and elsewhere. New ways of collecting, tracking, and analyzing data – not just as communities but actually as as individuals – are giving way to significant insights, and creating new opportunities. Numbers transformed into information and then morphed into wisdom and eventually action will become an influential platform for the next era of innovation. As LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman noted earlier this year: big data is the next big thing – it “is where some massive innovation will happen that will transform our lives.”

Living by numbers sounds like a modern concept – something from the post-computer age, or even the future. The phrase conjures up images of a never-ending string of numbers, and a world where people live more by logic than emotion. But is this concept really so contemporary or futuristic? Is it really so cold and cerebral?

Examples of How We’ve Been Living by Numbers Throughout History
As humans, we’ve always been fascinated by numbers, and have long known the benefits of using them to guide our daily lives – from the Ancient World through the Industrial age to today.

We’ve used numbers to bring us water and to cross it – we used mathematically precise calculations and building techniques to build the Roman Aquaduct system in the Ancient world to the first sea clock that allowed us to circumnavigate the globe in the 1770s. The Roman Aquaducts, powered by gravity, were built to technological standards of amazing precision (to prevent overflows or clotting). The famous aqueduct bridge the Pont du Guard in France has gradient of only 34 cm per kilometer (3.4:10,000), meaning that it descends only about 56 feet vertically over its entire length of over 31 miles.

In 1764, a self-educated British clockmaker John Harrison invented the first clock that accurately keep time at sea, enabling sailors to establish the longitue of a ship, revolutionizing and extending the possibility of safe long distance sea travel. Five years later explorer Captain James Cook used this chronometer to circumnavigate the globe, completing the first detailed charts of the world. Aqueducts brought fresh water for drinking, fountains and public pools, and managed sewers to dramatically expand the size of and transformed the nature and quality of life in cities. Sailing and charting the world forever changed the nature of navigation, travel, trade and exploration.

We’ve lived by numbers, keeping intimate track of time, to order our world and improve our productivity – from adopting the Gregorian calendar in the Age of Discovery to the development of the modern automated Ford assembly line in the Industrial Age. In 1582 Pope Gregory the XIII introduced the modern calendar we still use today, replacing one adopted by Julius Ceasar over 1500 years before, and correcting the assumption of the Julian calendar that a year is 365¼ days long, when it’s about 11 minutes less. The error had caused the calendar to be off by about 3 days every 400 years, requiring a shift of a full 10 days, when the Gregorian Calendar was adopted. In the Industrial Age machine manufacturing replaced manual labor, and automated production and new theories of efficiency helped re-orgianze commerce and our lives. The Ford Model-T assembly line increased production by 8:1, reducing the man-hours required to build a car to 1 hour 33 minutes, and producing cars so quickly that only Japan back paint would dry fast enough, driving the company to drop previously available colors until a faster drying liquor paint was developed 12 years later. Living by numbers in the Age of discovery involved erasing a week and a half from the calendar to put time back on the right track, and in the Industrial Era we tracked time to erase costs and make previously inaccessible goods available to the masses.

Today, data and numbers touch nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From the scientific method, that has been the bedrock of innovation in academia and cutting edge businesses, to ubiquitous smart phones that help us measure almost anything and everything.

Now each of us quite literally lives not only by numbers, but actually with our own number – a unique identifier that is both most effective means of reaching us at any time, and our primary means of connecting with others and with data. We’re becoming increasingly connected through smart phones and tablets – each day over 600,000 Android and Apple OS devices are activated and over 10 million apps are downloaded every day.

How Living By Numbers has Evolved
Over time we’ve gone from living by numbers tied to calendars to new means of exploration and transportation, to how we organize ourselves as a society and live together, to how we communicate with each other and access information. And along this pathway, numbers have changed humanity. They’ve altered not just how we live our lives, but the basis of our beliefs as well.

Take the scientific method: systematic observation, measurements, and experiments, followed by formulating, testing, and modifying hypotheses. In the late 19th century, Charles Sanders Peirce introduced the basic schema for hypothesis/testing for scientific discovery, and proposed a system of three kinds of inference – abductive, deductive, and inductive – that influence in the development of current scientific method generally. This method created a pathway for us to understand the world based on what we can measure. This reveals something very powerful: the transformative potential of numbers.

The Transformative Power of Numbers
The most exciting numbers are the ones that lead us to informed action. Living by numbers isn’t just about keeping track of them, it’s about using them to positively impact our lives. When we transform data into information, we enable ourselves to use this information to create knowledge, and in turn to turn this knowledge into action. When we follow the progression of numbers to their useful conclusion, they can become the basis for actions in our daily lives that are based on wisdom that we know is supported by fact and not merely belief.

What Living by Numbers Means Today
We’re entering into the next stage of the power of numbers and data. Previously, the use of numbers to guide and govern life occurred in the realm of social and religious leaders, then scientists and academics, and later businesses – but numbers shave never historically been in the domain of the public.

One important way of making numbers accessible and enabling quick decisions based on numbers is data visualization – a powerful means for conveying data in a way that’s easy to understand. With visualization tools we create the possibility for data to impact our lives in meaningful ways, by giving numbers context, relevance, and immediate accessibility. Visualization allows for us to put different datasets together quickly, and to instantly extract meaning from data.

This is changing. Today (and moreso in the near future), we can collect and track personal and communal numbers in exciting new ways. It’s easier and cheaper to store this data, and there are ever more, and simpler, ways to analyze and utilize these numbers in our daily lives. Information created by them is also increasingly accessible using data visualization – powerful means for conveying numbers in a way that’s easy to understand, and from which we can quickly make more informed decisions. Living by numbers leads to fascinating daily discoveries about us and our environment, creating enormous potential for positive personal and social change.

Life can and will change with the tools to collect, store, analyze, and understand numbers in ways that have only recently become available to individuals. As we realize that the exciting potential for what this new day of living by numbers can mean for each of us personally, we should also not forget to question where this leaves us at the end of the day as humans.

We should diligently consider the potential implications of this trend both for our society and our humanity, in the short and long term: Is making decisions based on just numbers always the right choice? Does moving from knowing less to knowing more always leave us better off? Who owns the numbers we generate, individually and collectively, and how should we handle them? How do we retain our humanity, beliefs, and core values in the presence of these new numbers and insights? And, of course: How can numbers be used to innovate for social change and improve our lives and the lives of others?

The answers to these questions can help guide our social dialogue around living by numbers, and help us understand when and how to integrate numbers into our daily lives so that we can, as humans, maximize the potential for data and numbers to create positive change for each of us. In this way, living by numbers can form the foundation for creating new kinds of social and personal wisdom, by expanding our knowledge and understanding of our daily life experiences, and helping us direct this wisdom toward our own greater good.


We will be livestreaming TEDx Silicon Valley on May 14th. Join us here.

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