Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Machine is in Our Heads (Part 2): Statistics Don’t Feel Pain

The conceptual frame that encases our social institutions, schools, governments, media—our very language in terms of our base metaphors—is derived from the goals of industrial mass production and the obligatory mass consumption that it entails.  Qualitative features of human wellbeing are recoded into quantitative terms and measured according to standards of mechanical output and efficiency.  Statistical indicators, proportions, averages—tools of Wall Street and corporate industry—have long replaced any reference to raw, qualitative human experience.  This frame reinforces the delusion of technological progress and disguises the unrelenting and progressive dehumanization and the deterioration in the quality of human experience that the delusion of progress engenders.

Consider the case of infant mortality, a statistic that is frequently used as a quantitative indicator of the quality of life.  Thanks to humanitarian international policy, modern medical technology, and the fruits of nutrition science—not to mention industrial agriculture—the global infant mortality rate is on the decline.  What does that mean?  From an industrial frame it represents a positive outcome: an increase in the overall quality of life.  However, a positive quantitative outcome in this case does not mean a reduction in human suffering because a decline in global infant mortality does not mean that fewer babies are dying.  In point of fact, more babies will die this year than died 10 years ago.  Or 25 years ago.  Or 100 years ago.   In point of fact, more infants will succumb this one year than in any given 30 year period prior to the agricultural revolution.

“Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Infant mortality is typically computed as the number of infant deaths per every 1000 live births.   Infant mortality worldwide stands at 44.13 per 1000 live births according to the CIA World Factbook. With a yearly global birth rate of just under 20 babies per every 1000 people, and a global population of 6.8 billion, there are, in raw human terms, 6 million infants who die each year. 

Human global population estimates for the Paleolithic range from fewer than 2 million to not more than 20 million.  Both birth rates and infant mortality were probably lower than they are now.  Women who survived to childbearing age were likely far healthier and more robust than women living today in the third-world.  And family planning takes on quite a different dimension when you are living in a small, interdependent, nomadic tribal group.  But, for the sake of argument, let’s use the numbers found in Uganda and Niger, the countries with the highest birth rates—over 50 per 1000 for Niger, and let’s take the country with the highest infant mortality rate, Angola, at 178.13 per 1000.  If we apply these numbers to the high Paleolithic population estimates, until the onset of large-scale domestication there were fewer than 200,000 babies who died in an average year  (Remember: the increase in global human population since the Paleolithic is a “byproduct” of “progress” in agricultural and industrial technology.) To frame this in the quantitative terms of industrial production:  there are somewhere between 30 and 300 times as many babies dying each year in our technologically advance modern civilization than died 10,000 years ago.             

If you measure suffering from a human perspective, according to the actual experience of individual human beings, technological “progress” brings more suffering, not less—and not just a little more!

But of course future technological “progress” will be able to fix all that…

Delusion (noun): a persistent false belief that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.

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