Eliminate the Number Glut!

by Jim Blowers

2000 July 18

Ever since I was a child, numbers have fascinated me. I liked the way you added them and subtracted them and multiplied them and I wanted to find out how they all worked. It was like a big puzzle. Yes, I loved numbers so much that I got a doctorate in Mathematics from Northwestern University where I learned of the many beautiful and useful patterns that numbers weave.

Yet I think we are getting out of hand. There are too many numbers in our society and we need to get rid of them!

First there were telephone numbers. In the old days a telephone number was part word, part number, such as Glenwood 8234M. You gave the operator this number, and you connected with your party. With the advent of the rotary phone, the numbers were eliminated. University 5 became 865 and we got numbers like 865-7849. These are not so easy to remember. In fact, many firms reverse this pattern and strive to, in fact, sometimes pay millions, for numbers like 1-800-GO-TEXAS and 1-877-USA-TEAM.

That's OK while there were seven digits. Area codes were introduced to take care of long distance. So we have to remember only 7 digits, these codes had to have 1 or 0 for their second digit. They were 716 or 804. Nowadays, however, telephone numbers are proliferating. There are fax numbers, voice numbers, numbers to dial on modems, cellular phone numbers, pager numbers, and numbers numbers galore. So many that they had to use other digits for the middle digit of an area code and come up with things like 757 for Tidewater. And still the telephone numbers keep increasing. Soon, we may have to dial 10 digits for a local call.

Then there are license plate numbers. First five digits, then six, then seven. There are postal zones, first one or two digits long, then a zip code of five digits. With neither area codes nor zip codes is there any rhyme or reason for where they are - although zip codes try to arrange themselves by region. We now have 9 digits in the zip code, enough for a billion zones. There is the ubiquitous social security number, which have become keys to finding all about you. Never give your social security number over the phone. Identifying you for driver's licenses and job applications was not the intended purpose of these numbers, which were solely to identify a person's Social Security account.

And speaking of accounts, every biller, every bank, every loan has to have its own number for you. We are being numbered to death. We have credit card numbers, sixteen digits long and in need of protection. There are PINs and passwords of various sorts, used to keep hidden our most precious and private treasurers - our identity and the valuable things we own.

Everything has to have its own number. We must have about 50-100 numbers that identify every one of us. We have to remember a different password for each account we have - brokerage, internet service provider, accounts with companies, even your grocery store. We can't remember them all. We get stuck because we can't remember a password or a serial number. Are all these numbers necessary?

Of course not. Numbers do very well at identifying things. A three-digit number identifies one of a thousand items. A six-digit number as 823543 identifies one in a million. There are 10 billion phone numbers, more than enough for everyone on the planet. There are 10 quintillion, that is one followed by 16 zeroes, possible credit card numbers. 10 quintillion would sure be a lot of people. So it seems to me that 16 digits, or maybe even 12 digits, are enough for every purpose, every person, on this globe.

We therefore need only one 12-digit number to identify each of us. Companies need to share numbers with each other. Phone numbers and zip codes need to correspond. An effort must be made to curb the growth of numbers and conserve their use. I am probably identified by 100 digits. 10 to the 100 power is a huge number called a googol. Certainly I can be identified by far less than one in a googol.

Even better yet, why not letters instead of numbers? The alphabet, like the digits, are just a group of symbols used in combination to identify items. If one counts by 26's instead of 10's, one can even write numbers using the letters of the alphabet. An ad would be 30, since A is in the 26s place and 26 + 4 for d is 30. And letters do something better than mindless numbers do. They mean things. Instead of identifying me by 598729395, instead identify me by "math south of James".

Which brings us to that ancient moniker that has been used a long time and serves even today to identify people without having to crank out strings of numbers: the name. We need to reduce the number madness before we get any number number than we are. Let's go back to the old-fashioned name. So from now on, don't give me a number; call me Jim Blowers.