The Trial of Homo Abacus: Security through Calculation

From out of the whirlwind:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

(Job 38: 4-7)

Fate, providence, karma and the “sins of our fathers” are some of the paradigms used to explain disasters – from the micro to the macro. Each paradigm has a certain economy of security – prayer, sacrifice, confession – that wards off (or halts the cycle) of disaster. In this predictive age of the present, however, there is a continual fine-tuning of statistical analyses, scientific measurements, and mathematical models that purport to replace superstitious incantations with scientific exactitude. Prayers are still offered, by some, but like software licensing agreements that are hastily clicked on, earlier economies of security have become a mere formalities. Haollowed practices. Remnants of a simpler past.

Moving away from fatalistic or providential understandings of disaster and toward calculating control has placed human agency at the centre of prediction and prevention. It is not a god that can save or destroy us, but homo abacus. The fallout from recent events such as the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the L’Aquila earthquake demonstrate this shift.

The scientific community, government inquiries and investigative journalists increasingly place human agency in the centre as the cause and control of disaster.[1] Was the Fukushima plant designed and maintained to withstand a tsunami? Did BP, Transocean and Halliburton cut costs in construction and maintenance in order to increase profits? Why didn’t the scientists of the Major Risks Committee predict the effect of the L’Aquila earthquake? The inability for these scientists to adequately answer this final question resulted in jail sentences “for underestimating an earthquake that killed 309 people in the town of L’Aquila in 2009”.[2]  Although natural events undeniably play a role in these scenarios, contemporary security strategies and discourse position human agency as the crucial point on which attempts to govern unknown futures stand or fall.

The purported obesity epidemic is another example. Although in this instance everyone is expected to adopt the practices of homo abacus – the calculating and measuring human. There are obvious differences between the obesity epidemic and the L’Aquila earthquake or Deepwater Horizon disaster. My point is not that they represent equivalent threats to society, but that a similar rationality is in operation that seeks to govern unpredictable and incalculable events that are entwined with human agency. Just as the L’Aquila earthquake cannot be dismissed as tragic natural disaster beyond human control, the obesity epidemic cannot be dismissed as relatively benign social and biological phenomenon that is plateauing.[3] Rather both have provoked countless experts that are producing knowledge, developing techniques and deploying strategies to govern future unknown threats to population health, safety and economic security.

Further, like the scientists of L’Aquila who stood trial and were sentenced for failing to predict the earthquake, each of us are on trial while simultaneously serving as jurors in the trials of others. Although some more so than others. Counting calories in. Counting calories out. Measuring waist circumference. Assessing daily percentage intake. Weighing bodies. Pinching flesh.  Dividing body mass by the square of height. These are some of homo abacus’s (in)calculable duties that secure the self and others. These are the new incantations of control that make us believe we can prevent the whirlwind and answer any questions it may pose.

[1] Risa Maeda, “Japan Fukushima probe urges new disaster prevention steps, mindset,” Reuters, July 23, 2012; Steven Mufson, “BP, Transocean, Halliburton blamed by presidential Gulf oil spill commission,” Washington Post, January 6, 2011.

[2] Sunanda Creagh, “Researchers alarmed by jail sentence for Italian scientists,” The Conversation, October 23 2012.

[3] Michael Gard, The End of the Obesity Epidemic  (New York: Routledge, 2011)., 168