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Number mysticism

I was flattered to be counted among the 100 or so people deemedschmooze-worthy enough to be invited to an executive dinner recently. After the absolutely scrumptious dessert (a self-healing slab of cheese cake) was cleared, we turned our chairs toward the dais where the VP of Something told us this month's official opening joke and began a 45-slide snore-a-thon, detailing the latest market survey by a well-known, highly respected firm, flaying away at the obvious until there wasn't a shred of flesh left on the bone. Pie charts followed bar charts with the inevitability of sucking sounds made by someone removing spinach from his front teeth. Minuscule, statistically irrelevant distinctions were trumpeted as revelations, and ambiguous polling questions were answered with outstanding certitude.

Maybe it's a left-brain/right-brain sort of thing, but as soon as the tiny-print bar charts start coming out, my cortex shuts down and I only want to escape to a flat rock where I can sun myself and listen for flies.

Let's randomly take just one number among the hundreds they presented: The Gartner Group predicts that $2.7 trillion will move through the Web in 2004. (They didn't tell us what degree of certainty Gartner assigned this figure, rated from 0 to 1.) Here's a nice precise number, so precise it just has to be right! It seems so, well, knowable.

We could, presumably, get the assumptions it's based on, run our own spreadsheet, crunch our abdominal muscles into tight little buns, and dispute what The Gartners say. In fact, after much analysis (well, I was going to do much analysis, but "Whose Line Is It?" was on TV), I am 0.9 certain (on the Gartner Scale) that the number really should be $2.55 trillion.

Now, a $150,000,000,000 overdraft is no laughing matter. Why, I could put my children through college with that type of money (assuming they also get athletic scholarships). But we all know that it's not worth even writing to The Gartners to inform them of their error ... because the $2.7 trillion figure means just about nothing anyway. Or, to be more precise, it means: A huge amount of money will move through the Web in a few years. Huge! Really really big!!!

In other words, all the pretense of precision is really nothing more than a series of exclamation marks: e-commerce is going to be big!!! The rest is just mathematical self-hypnosis.

PS: A recent issue of InformationWeek attributes that statistic to Forrester, not Gartner, as it approaches the status of urban myth.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.

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