Posted by: holdenlee | September 5, 2012

1/(7 billion)

What does it feel like to be \frac{1}{\text{7 billion}}? That’s being a human on earth in 2012. But 7 billion is a very large number to wrap your mind around. It’s hard to simultaneously think of the two things that the number \frac{1}{\text{7 billion}} actually implies:

  • You experience and understand an incredibly small fraction of what’s out there. You can create an incredibly small fraction of what’s out there. Maybe you can increase this fraction by working hard. But no matter what you try to do to increase your worldliness, you can still only truly understand \frac{1}{\text{7 billion}} of the human experience of the present day.
  • Because \frac{1}{\text{7 billion}}>0, there is a unique part of the human experience which only you are privy to, a story of vicissitudes that only you can tell. No one can experience the way you experience, from that darkness behind your eyes. Without you, the world is not whole: only 1-\frac{1}{\text{7 billion}}.

Maybe when we feel the weight of the denominator, we’re just looking for that long-ago Dunbar tribe–when a community was just the world–a community where everyone knows each other, where your work is valued by everyone else, or if not, at least, everyone is cognizant of your existence. We are many degrees of magnitude removed, and it seems, perhaps, a lot of strife comes about this way: we envy those we don’t truly understand (we tend less to envy someone who’s our good friend). We can’t map 7 billion souls on an infinite-dimensional landscape of human experience, so we reduce them to data points: intelligence, wealth, popularity. Some of us want to be famous, but we can’t possibly reach every single eye and ear of those 7 billion–but we have to understand, if we reach a fraction of that, then we’ve made some impact on the world. It’s undoubtable that some people have more impact than others, but if you change the lives of 10 people around you, well, that’s \frac{10}{\text{7 billion}}> \frac{1}{7 \text{ billion}}>0. And even though you and your friend are each just \frac{1}{7 \text{ billion}}, well, in each other’s eyes, you are much, much more than that.

Quora got me philosophizing about this. Intended to do work yesterday evening, then just spent an hour and a half reading it, especially the “What does it feel like to X” questions. I think it gave me ADHD for a while. You get so many perspectives you simply can’t imagine. I feel like there’d be a bunch of questions I’d want to ask, but now that I’m suddenly presented with the forum to ask them, I can’t actually articulate them.

One of the most jarring answers I saw on quora was to “What does it feel like to be a self made millionaire under the age of 25?“–it’s one of the many examples of a question that I can’t easily imagine an answer without being told. One of the answers is an incredibly disillusioned one about how you need much much more money to actually do anything great (like have a private island)–and other people can’t identify at all (reminds me of my math competition days, when my own accomplishments make others jealous and me depressed)–and the gnawing worry that he won’t be able to do anything comparable for the rest of his life; he will just stagnate.

I think one of the good things about liking to read and learn is that it shields you from getting bored with life, because 1\gg \frac{1}{7\text{ billion}}, because the volume of stuff, even exceptionally good stuff (accumulated by lots of people over the span of history), out there for you to know is just way, way more than you can all read in one lifetime. I cling to this attitude as a vaccine against that sort of disillusionment.

Thinking back to writing, at the core of a story you write should be a message that you really want to convey, that even a more experienced writer cannot, because that person is not you. And if we place the value of that story you weave in the fresh perspective that you bring to other people… good writing/bad writing aside (which can be fixed with sufficient work), there is an \epsilon>0 there.


  1. […] do we do? Choose the circles around us [it's important to have a good Dunbar tribe around us], and think more […]

  2. Your two initial points add insight to the bewildering initial question of the feeling of 1-in-7-billion-ness. It’s bewildering because (per the idea of Dunbar’s number/tribe) a human is equiped to know the feeling of at most 250-in-7-billion-ness. We fall short by about 7 orders of magnitude!

    • “And even though you and your friend are each just \frac{1}{7 \text{ billion}}, well, in each other’s eyes, you are much, much more than that.”

      Such a good point. Although it can be thrilling to consider the world, all of humanity, we’re comically under-equipped to succeed. Too much focus on this may lead to ruin. Fortunately, a person is equipped to be \frac{1}{10 \text{ ish}} >> \frac{1}{7 \text{ billion}} to the people really close to them. You just have to focus on the smaller denominator, and magically you become much, much more!

  3. No latex rendering in the comments? Or did I specify something incorrectly?

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