Monday, February 17, 2014

The mathematics of welfare

In its heyday, New Zealand Railways was the Wired magazine of its time. What had started as a publication for the Railways Department’s 18,000 staff and its principal suppliers and customers was able to morph into a whole-of-culture, broad-ranging popular publication because it was wedded to a technology that signified social and economic progress in the same way that computing does today.

Even in early 1934, as the country struggled out of the worst of the Depression, an ad in the magazine could proclaim ‘Railways for Happy Days Again.’ In the same issue, we were introduced to the Railway Department’s section of the industrial procession known as ‘Wellington’s Drive for the Restoration of National Confidence.’ Good times were ‘overdue’, and the train would lead the country to them. Witness the bright sun of tomorrow filling the horizon at the end of the straight railway track on the cover.

By mid 1938, confidence had been restored, and the magazine could print ads such as this one:

But faith in technology and rational progress could not be bound to a means of transportation alone, however shaping of the nation and its mindset. So in the June 1938 we find an extended piece by O. N. Gillespie entitled: The Marvels of Mathematics – “The Mirror of Civilization” – The Coming Of An Arithmetic Of Social Welfare. The bulk of its content is devoted to showing how the ancient Greeks and Romans never mastered basic mathematical concepts such as division and the zero, which set hard limits on their ability to progress not only technologically but also culturally, as civilisations. The last suggestion of that long-winded title – that social welfare can be reduced to a mathematical problem, thereby solved – receives a somewhat shorter and more elliptical treatment. But it’s intriguing nonetheless.

At the outset, Gillespie declares his admiration for ‘the great Professor Hogben’ , meaning Lancelot Hogben , the author of the 700-page best-seller Mathematics for the Million, an extraordinary work of popular science that is still in print to this day. Being an admirer of Hogben myself (I’ll get around to writing a post on my copy of Science for the Citizen sooner or later), I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that a more widespread mastery of numbers might lead to a more critical and engaged citizenry. But Gillespie takes it further. He writes:
When the common men of the world have universally a command of the grammar of mathematics, there will arise from them greater men still, more profound thinkers, who will conduct the impeachment of the evils that infest our world.
The language of mathematics represents an emancipating force, freeing intellects and setting free influences which pass over national barriers. From the study of its eternal truths, from the appreciation of its beneficence of discovery, its inescapable exactness of conclusion, will come the ultimate realisation of happiness for all mankind.

Nowadays you might find pronouncements such as the last one above – centred on the idea that knowledge is humanity’s prime and inexhaustible resource – precisely in magazines such as Wired. Outside of the fevered dreams of the technologists, however, this age of austerity and brutal economic upheavals offers too many reminders that a science of numbers capable of guaranteeing the people’s well-being has yet to be discovered. Gillespie’s ‘vision of comfort and glory’ has found more takers among right-wing radicals economic theorists operating out of think-thanks and universities than in the highly numerate polis that he foreshadowed.

Fittingly, the desire to foster a literate, intelligent popular readership is what we mostly remember about New Zealand Railways Magazine, but there wasn’t a safe arithmetic to ensure that admirable goal either. The publication that just a few years earlier had cheerfully offered the prospect of ‘happy days again’ abruptly ceased to operate in 1940, and didn’t reopen after the war.