Left in the dark

Symbolic picture for the article. The link opens the image in a large view.

The sudden decision by China’s National Bureau of Statistics to delay indefinitely the release of G.D.P. and other economic statistics while the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China takes place in Beijing has created much consternation among financial analysts and economic observers. These observers have learned to live with statistical data being framed and manipulated according to political preferences and to gain some understanding of China’s economic situation nonetheless by comparing datasets over the long term, combining data on different matters and cross-referencing data with other types of information. Not being provided any data at all, however, is rare. “I’ve not come across before a situation where a whole raft of statistical reporting has just been postponed, in nearly half a century of monitoring data releases — not even in times of pestilence and conflict,” said one of them (see the NYT article from 17 October, 2022 linked above).

While not giving any data at all is certainly telling in its own way, this surprising interruption reminds us of how much we have come to depend on a constant flow of numbers and calculations to understand how societies are doing. Not only in the economic sphere would we be unable to see “the big picture” by observing individual actions, but we are also constantly reducing the complexity of politics, science, art, medicine and many other parts of society into numerical data (polls, rankings, artwork prices, Corona statistics…) which is then compared, recombined, interpreted, projected into the future, taken as a basis for action and so on. To be left completely without numbers — completely in the dark — as is now the case in China disrupts the usual procedures and creates all kinds of calculation problems for a wide range of institutions. It also demonstrates that numbers do not merely represent some kind of reality but that they create a reality of their own, a reality that is an essential element in the working of modern societies.

(posted by Stefan Christ)