Wednesday, 27 February 2008

I've got two legs

At work I operate with two monitors. I always wondered what sort of crazy people would do that and consigned it to pit of things done by graphic designers and software editors. I actually need to access enough documents simultaneously these days that I could probably do with another.

The number two is quite interesting because it's all around us, not just my visual display units but my eyes, ears, nostrils, nipples, legs, arms and other assorted extremities...ahem. There are two magnetic poles, two sexes, two terrestrial BBC channels, two premier league football teams in Manchester...okay the last two aren't so interesting. Early man would have associated with the number two as that was the number of large celestial light producing bodies in the sky visible with the naked eye, the Sun and the Moon. In fact much of our understanding of the world comes from contrasting things with their polar opposite; good from bad, dark from light, sweet from sour and so on. This is a key tenet of structural semiotics if anyone's interested.

So, two is quite interesting but that makes three even more so because in many early cultures it simply did not exist, counting schemes went one, two, lots. In early Mesopotamia they used the word 'es' for three but it didn't mean three it just meant plural, just as we would add an 's' on the end of words for pluralisation, it worked in the same way. Even better were the civilisations where numbers greater than two were counted in combinations of one and two. In Australia, for instance, the Aranda used 'ninta' for one and 'tara' for two, three became 'tara mi ninta' and four was 'tara ma tara', any more than four and they were back to 'lots'. There are similar examples from Ancient Egypt and China but I fear I'd only be getting repetitive.

I'm by no means ignorant of technology but computers generally baffle me. They have one great advantage over us in that they do not have to conceptualise numbers which we do if they are to 'mean' something to us. We're not so good at dealing with the abstract, and even then numbers greater than five or six become difficult to conceive. The fact that we see the world still with such binary vision leads me to the conclusion that we've not evolved as far as we give ourselves credit and strangely I find it comforting.