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Mathematics is a weird thing, especially when it comes to comparing the scale of things.
I was recently spending my government-mandated internet time wasting time (an excuse I like to give my wife for my digital ramblings) and exploring, and came across an article on a rather aptly named website, Wait but why.
The specific article in question was Your Life in Weeks, which showed, in a range of infographics, an average human lifespan in years, months, and then weeks – with a weekly infographic also colour coded to display a typical American life. I must admit to having a bit of a Goldilocks moment, because the Year infographic made me panic – I should perhaps withdraw all my bank balance and spend my days enjoying life! However, the Week infographic made me want to invest, save and panic about my pension contributions – I have so much life left, what am I going to do, retirement is how long?! Each infographic showed the same information, but how different their representation could be.
I’m also reminded of a video by the great Tom Scott, a YouTuber who produces amazing educational videos. There are numerous ways of representing the difference between a million and a billion – grains of rice, small cells, etc. But in his video A Million Dollars vs A Billion Dollars, Visualised: A Road Trip – you guessed it, he used distance. He argues that using volume isn’t something the human brain is great at, and thus using a one-dimensional method makes more sense.
He's right; while the other methods do make sense to me, this video helped me comprehend just how vast a difference there is. Tom starts by walking the distance of a million (dollars stacked along the ground), which took him approximately a minute; he then drove a billion, which takes him over an hour! Let me repeat that in bold and caps – AN HOUR! Once more scale has affected my mood. It seemed almost reasonable to my understanding that he walked $10,000 in a few steps, and $1,000,000 in a minute – surely a billion is therefore just a 10-minute brisk walk. But an hour-long car ride is insane. Now to say a sentence I’d never thought I’d say: “But that’s just a billion dollars!” As it stands the richest man in the world is Elon Musk, worth approximately $219 billion. That’s a 219-hour car drive, or 9.125 days, or 13,140 minutes, or 788,400 seconds. How many seconds is my wealth right now? Where should it be in relation to my weekly pension chart? I need a drink … I wonder how many tiny steps that is?
Representation of scale is wonderful for many things, but there is a danger too. As visual creatures we can quickly grasp concepts and are perhaps too quick to react rather than consider what is being displayed, especially when it comes to elements which affect life. Data can quite often be manipulated to push an agenda, or a feeling – depending on what the creator of said infographic wants you to feel.
Should I be dreading the time I have left of my life, or should I have my feet up wasting my time on the internet? Am I angry and upset at the disparities of wealth in the world, and the utter ridiculous scale between the poorest and the richest?
Perhaps I should just live in the now; my life is my life and I’m happy with it. I have what I have; the wants, needs, and worries mean nothing in the now. Can we make a scale for now?
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