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