Seven Billion

I’ve been enjoying the visualisations that have been popping up to depict the trends and predictions of the world’s population, now it has officially hit 7,000,000,000 (the now universally accepted US thousand million and not the old british million million, i.e. 7,000,000,000,000).

There is a great interactive one on the BBC website called ‘What’s your number’ that is proving to be very popular. You type in your date of birth and it pinpoints on a trend graph where you were born relative to the rest of the population since the year 1500. It also gives you a number for when you were born in the history of mankind, which gives you a unique identity. The app is a lot of fun to play with, and R who had pointed it out to me, got much pleasure putting in all the birthdays of her family to see what a difference a couple of decades makes to their personal blips on the graph – especially given how the human curve has increased exponentially since the last century.

There are an awful lot of people that have joined us since we were born. Something like 300 babies are born every minute. For me:

When you were born, you were the:
person alive on Earth

and the
person to have lived since history began

These simple interactive visualisations are very powerful cognitive amplifiers; they let you effortlessly compare your single digit self with everyone else who has lived. On the one hand, it really gives you a sense of being an inconsequential dot, while on the other, a building block in history. It is that contrast between bird’s eye view and ant’s view that is so evocative.

Sometimes, when I’m being crushed on the London Underground or trampled on when navigating my way through the myriad of student ant trails on the UCL campus as classes change, I feel the full weight of the 7 billion. And then I remind myself of what it was like living in downtown Bloomington, Indiana during the dog days of summer when all the students and sensible faculty had decamped, leaving the landlocked landscape devoid of human life. We used to drive around playing a game of people spotting on the sidewalk, cheering loudly if we happened upon one Hopperesque-soul.

Often disappointed and desperate, we’d end up driving to Target – the Hoosier heartland – in search of any life form, just to remind ourselves that a few tens of people existed – let alone seven billion.

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