DICK POUNTAIN

A thought ex­per­i­ment re­veals the world is no level play­ing field.

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 - Dick Pountain, editorial fel­low of PC Pro, has al­ways un­fash­ion­ably pre­ferred statis­tics to lies or damned lies. dick@dick­poun­tain.co.uk

I’m not prone to hero wor­ship, but that isn’t to say I’m im­mune: my heroes in­clude sol­diers, sci­en­tists, philoso­phers and mu­si­cians, from Garibaldi to Richard Feyn­man. One of th­ese heroes, Hans Rosling, died in Fe­bru­ary of this year, a Swedish doc­tor, aca­demic, statis­ti­cian and pub­lic speaker. That may not sound a heroic CV, but his hero­ism con­sisted of in­vent­ing ways to make statis­tics both ex­cit­ing and com­pre­hen­si­ble to the pub­lic, then de­ploy­ing this abil­ity to coun­ter­act panic about over­pop­u­la­tion. This wasn’t spec­u­la­tion, but based on his ex­pe­ri­ence as a doc­tor in var­i­ous de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

His bril­liant 2013 doc­u­men­tary Don’t Panic - the Truth About Pop­u­la­tion ( pcpro. link/277hans) used state-of-the-art Mu­sion 3D an­i­mated in­fo­graph­ics to show that as a na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion achieves higher liv­ing stan­dards, their av­er­age fer­til­ity drops so steeply that to­tal world pop­u­la­tion is al­ready peak­ing, and is set to plateau at around 11 bil­lion by 2100. And he be­lieved this num­ber could be fed if re­sources were sen­si­bly used. To be sure, 2013 now feels like a pre­vi­ous epoch in which one could sen­si­bly as­sume peo­ple would get steadily more pros­per­ous.

I wanted to pay tribute to Rosling’s amaz­ing fa­cil­ity with statis­tics and his be­lief that when used prop­erly they re­veal truths that can help us sur­vive, and so I’ve de­vised a thought ex­per­i­ment that may have ap­pealed to his imp­ish Scan­di­na­vian sense of hu­mour.

Cre­ate a 3D co­or­di­nate sys­tem with three or­thog­o­nal axes la­belled Knowl­edge, Fame and Wealth. De­fine th­ese three quan­ti­ties sim­plis­ti­cally but prag­mat­i­cally by de­vis­ing func­tions to ex­tract them from ex­ist­ing avail­able data­bases. For ex­am­ple, you might cre­ate a Knowl­edge func­tion that com­piles each per­son’s years of pri­mary, sec­ondary and pos­si­bly ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion; Fame might be derived from a per­son’s ex­tended fam­ily size, to which add Google hits on their name, Face­book and Twit­ter friends, and for a few add pro­fes­sional data such as num­ber of TV or movie per­for­mances, books pub­lished, sport­ing suc­cesses and so on; Wealth would come from govern­ment tax data­bases and bank records (per­haps sup­ple­mented from the Panama Pa­pers) . Com­pile th­ese three pa­ram­e­ters for ev­ery per­son in the world, then plot them all into your 3D space.

You’ll protest that this is im­pos­si­ble and I’ll agree, but will then point out that a) it’s only a thought ex­per­i­ment and b) think back to the 2016 US elec­tion when Big Data firms such as Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ics claimed to have done some­thing not too far off for most of the US elec­torate. It’s not as far-fetched as it was even two years ago.

What you’d now be look­ing at is a solid of roughly spher­i­cal pro­por­tions close to the cen­tre, which con­tains the vast ma­jor­ity of the world pop­u­la­tion, with nu­mer­ous spiky pro­tu­ber­ances that con­tain all the world’s aca­demics, celebri­ties and plu­to­crats: a sort of world hedge­hog. The length and vol­ume of th­ese pro­tu­ber­ances would be a mea­sure of the in­equal­i­ties along all three axes. Now let’s get more im­plau­si­ble, by up­dat­ing this chart on a yearly ba­sis and an­i­mat­ing it in Mu­sion style, so that it throbs and twitches, grows and shrinks in var­i­ous di­rec­tions.

If you could project the data back into the medium-dis­tant past you’d see the ef­fect of po­lit­i­cal pro­grams and so­cial move­ments. Fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, the sphere would ex­pand along at least the Wealth and Knowl­edge axes, up un­til the late 1970s when Wealth mo­tion might cease, and may even go into re­verse. From that point on­wards you’d see some swelling along the Fame axis as the in­ter­net gives more peo­ple their Warho­lian 15 min­utes, but the spikes along Fame and Wealth di­rec­tions would grow enor­mously longer and a lot thin­ner as Wealth be­comes far more con­cen­trated.

As for Knowl­edge, are we re­ally get­ting smarter or dum­ber? It’s easy to jump to con­clu­sions here. Lit­er­acy is still prob­a­bly in­creas­ing through much of the de­vel­op­ing world, while univer­sity at­ten­dance has con­tin­ued to spread in the de­vel­oped world, but may soon go into re­verse due to in­creased costs – and there are ar­gu­ments about the main­te­nance of stan­dards. I wish I could run this ex­per­i­ment and see the “real” pic­ture.

My thought ex­per­i­ment il­lus­trates the dif­fer­ence be­tween nat­u­ral and so­cial com­pe­ti­tion. The play­ing field is any­thing but flat; in fact it’s a spiky sur­face, some­thing like a naval mine or huge sea urchin.

Fame might be derived from a per­son’s ex­tended fam­ily size, to which add Google hits on their name and Face­book friends

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