“If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die” (George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones)
The Nazi Germans of World War II assigned serial numbers to the Jews they kept in camps. This number was sewn to their prison uniforms, and often tattooed on their bodies, ridding them of their identity as humans. Because the identities of Jews were hidden behind “so many numbered punchcards“, it was a morally simpler task for the Nazis to exterminate them. It is extremely difficult (in a psychological sense) to kill another human personally. Therefore in dehumanising the Jews, it became possible for “great atrocities“ to take place.
It’s final exam week. I walk into a large hall, dubbed ‘building nine‘. I sit at the table marked ‘A38’, as instructed by an automated email sent two weeks prior. This number will be my identity for the next three hours; one hundred and eighty minutes; 10 800 seconds. I write my student number, a seven-digit code I’ve learned to memorise (and which means more to the university than my name), at the top of each exam paper. I sneak a look at my surroundings; hundreds of tables span in neat lines, like a perfect digital binary code. When the clock strikes 9am, I scribble furiously with my pen until my wrist aches. I fill in little dots to mark the slabs of content I’ve been forced to memorise over the past thirteen-or-so-weeks. When they tell me to stop, I leave the hall. I go home and wait for the number to appear on my screen; the number which will tell me whether or not I have to repeat the subject next time.
They may not be legitimising genocide anymore, but numbers are still identifying and dividing us.
In high school, every report card, every exam and assessment was ranked from the top student to the bottom. My maths teacher would post a ‘top 10’ ranking on the wall of the classroom after each mathematics assessment. I made the list every time except once, and everyone noticed. And wondered why. Aloud. They asked both me and the teacher, and made me more disappointed in myself than I really should have been. What happened, Claire? OMG Claire’s not on the list. And (my personal favourite) I BEAT CLAIRE. It wasn’t that my mark was bad, it was my ranking. I felt like shit, though. That was the first time I realised the issue with ranking in schools; it’s all well and good until you aren’t at the top.
Another teacher said the best way to ensure a great ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) was to get a good rank in every class. Here’s the issue with that useless piece of advice; not everyone can rank well, by definition. Conversely, if that teacher had said the best way to ensure a great ATAR was to average an 80% + grade in each subject, every student could (in theory) achieve that goal. It doesn’t matter how hard the whole cohort tries in a ranking system; there will always be a bottom group – and that’s just a really shitty system. But welcome to the ATAR. If you’re ranked first in your class, you’re guaranteed the top mark in the HSC exam produced by your cohort. If you’re ranked 12th, you will receive the 12th highest exam mark, and so on.
This actually ended up working well in my favour. My maths rank wasn’t the best towards the end of year 12, but there was one assessment left: a poster summary. All we had to do was summarise a topic from the previous year and present it on cardboard. It was me in a class full of wannabe engineers; super-smart boys who were fluent in the language of projectiles and trigonometry, but who didn’t know glitter glue from ribbon. My teacher therefore loved my super sexy maths poster, and I jumped to rank five in the course and therefore received an exam mark which I was very pleased with, but probably didn’t deserve.
As big data approaches the mainstream axis of information technology, the issue of using numbers in classifying and coding humans is as relevant as ever. At the same time there is a push from researchers to adopt qualitative data techniques to combat the effects of this.