Occasionally, certain ideas seem to insist themselves upon me, seeming important, not going away and popping themselves up like toast everyday around breakfast. Lately, it has been the idea that we generally have no idea what a million really is. Not really. Not in a real sense, like how many hairs on your head or blades of grass on a football pitch.
You know, I’m not even sure if a million really exists. I have no way of really knowing, not in an instinctual way . And then there’s all this talk about the economy and bailouts where billions and trillions enter the mix and I think that, as humans that we do take a lot things on trust. We need to, if someone is running past you bleeding shouting BEAR! you would probably not care too much about the tangibility of the bear. Maybe there is no bear… this IS York!
I know it’s my problem, but when trying to understand anything I often visualize it, to make it into something where I can see the big messy picture. Mind maps are great at this. A great way of both representing nearness and re-representing that back to yourself. Doodles are good too… tapping your subconscious for meaning and seeing what it serves up (mileage may vary).
I then often need to nickname items, or create a reference that brings back the essence of the thing. Pattern Languages are great at this because they force you to give each “thing” a catchy title. Catchy titles rock (that could be a pattern in itself).
One “trick” that people often use to help with the problem of understanding big numbers is to introduce time or space into the equation. For example, if a trillion were steps you could walk to Venus etc… Which at times although memorable ( I just made that up by the way) is totally meaningless in that I have no plans to walk to Venus. A hiking trip to outerspace is just not a tangible thing – who could carry the amount of Kendal Mint Cake you’d need? Impossible! Think about the blisters!
Sometimes I try to personalize the thing, to bring the subject down to human size. For example, it’s interesting to note that Chris Garrett ( a local blogger and author and lovely bloke ) has roughly the same number of Twitter followers as people who attend a home match at Bradford City. Knowing that fact alters the way I think about Bradford and his audience, I mean, suddenly twelve thousand, in terms of cheers and boos seems like a LOT of people… intimidating even. When was the last time you spoke to ( and received feedback from ) even a quarter of that many people. It must be weird being a successful blogger or playing for Bradford City.
But here’s the thing, a million people is a very different number to a million pounds (or any object). Nobody may have told you, but people are not the same as things… You heard it here first.
And finally, to really understand something, I need to play with it. For it to become something that really is part of me. I’m like a big baby. Unless I’ve chewed something, it’s not real.
And so, when people try to make any abstract thing real, I applaud them. Especially big numbers which I’m yet to fully believe exist.
See the Visualizing One Trillion Dollars on the Mint.com Blog, it’s great but I immediately want to play with the data. In the “tanks” visualisation, would altering the size of tank to match each country’s spend on defence have improved or ruined the visualisation? I wonder why they didn’t include the table of data they’d collected?
If someone wanted to give you a million quid in used notes, they could probably fit it in a shoe box… if they used large denomination notes and had big feet. A million isn’t what it used to be is it.. and you’d think someone that rich would at least spend something on a nice box… Crikey!
But even the language aspect of numers fails us, I mean, a trillion doesn’t sound a lot more than a billion which is next door but one to a million, in the same way that a tricycle isn’t a lot more than a bicycle, it’s just a bit tricky when speeding around corners.
Now take a look at this …
p.s If anyone would like to send me a shoe box stuffed with used notes you really don’t have to wrap it nicely but at least send it registered delivery will you.