The empire of mathematics

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The empire of mathematics

I am deeply disturbed when I hear my students speak about their futures and relate worries about what they will do.

It is not simply that they are not certain that they can find good jobs. Rather they feel that there is some hidden force beneath the surface that keeps reaching up to grab their feet. Korean society does not want to recognize that they have an innate value in themselves as humans.

It seems to be an inviolable law that whatever Koreans do must be converted into numbers and then ranked before its significance can be appreciated. Moreover, the ranking must be based on some objective criterion out there that is far from daily experience.

We do not judge people based on how they interact with those around them, or by how they contribute to our culture and to organizations through their daily activities. Rather we use mathematical equations to determine value: number of widgets sold, number of SSCI articles published, number of automobiles serviced.

Mathematics has become the final arbiter of value in Korea and any contributions that cannot be assessed in terms of quantity cannot be appreciated or recognized.

I think my students are confused because there is a terrible violence in Korean society of which they are unaware. The full complexity of human experience, the nuanced and multidimensional nature of one’s interactions with family, community and the natural world is constantly rendered into two-dimensions as a ranking, a single number on a scale that represents the worth of the individual, or of the institution or of the nation.

The original source of this drive for an artificial mathematical rendering of value stems from concerns that if Koreans are left to judge other Koreans, that corruption will inevitably set in and therefore mathematical assessment will be more objective.

This two-dimensional approach to the human experience has flattened it and left us feeling empty.

As a professor I am amazed to see faculty judged based on the number of publications in a narrow range of journals without any appreciation for the significance of what they write, or their work as mentors, colleagues, citizens, writers or philosophers. The number of journal articles is easily calculated by a computer while the significance of one’s work can be assessed only by people who have an intimate familiarity with one’s work.

The situation is much worse for my students who find their complex personal experience turned into “specs” through the job application process, like garlic smashed in a garlic press. The tragedy is not simply that there are not enough jobs, but that young people cannot be appreciated for who they are.

The question should not be what your numerical value is on a scale, but rather what you stand for, or your fundamental values.

It is possible to find complex and nuanced ways of understanding the value of people. But to do so, you need to create relations between people whose value is not defined in monetary terms. You need to create long-term relations between people so that we can fully appreciate the experiences and contributions of everyone.

The fundamental epistemological order in Korean society places economics at the top, only defined in terms of GDP, interest rates and exports. Next comes technology, but its importance is shown by sales and profit rather than its positive, or negative, impact on society. Culture is at the bottom of the heap, an activity for personal enrichment and weekend relaxation.

But culture is what defines us, what sets our values and gives our lives meaning. To focus on statistics while casting a blind eye to the delicate, nuanced and, at times, ambiguous nature of culture means that we can move forward quicker, but we no longer have any control of where we are going or why.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

Emanuel Pastreich
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