Arthur Johnson explores the influence of numbers when joining communities to elicit change.
The ones that are ‘Zeros’
Historically, communities have driven change. Steve Jobs wasn’t the only founder of Apple. Tarana Burke wasn’t the only person behind the #MeToo movement. Branch Rickey wasn’t the last sports executive to sign an African American baseball player. But Jobs was the initiator behind Apple, Burke was the pioneer of the #MeToo movement, and Rickey was the first to sign an African American player – Jackie Robinson – breaking the colour barrier in doing so. These people are whom we will call the ‘Zeros,’ they’re the individuals who don’t need anyone to go before to induce them to stand for, or do, something.
This idea can be extended to those who need just one person to initiate change before becoming involved themselves. The previous examples would include Steve Wozniak for Apple, and the Cleveland Indians being the second MLB team to sign an African American player. We will call these the ‘Ones.’ This follows on through the ‘Twos’ and ‘Threes,’ all the way to the ‘Infinites’ – those that will never change their opinion or stand for change. It is often impossible for us to know where exactly we lie in this ordering; I may think I am a ‘Two’ and find that I am actually a ‘Seventy.’ Equally, one is unlikely to have the same value for all movements/ideas. I am far nearer a ‘Zero’ in joining an Effective Altruism strike than I am in joining the QAnon movement.
Making the next move
In reading about this topic, it reminded me of a few age-old sayings; ‘I’ll do it if you do it’; ‘you do it first;’ or my mother’s favourite, ‘if they told you to jump off a cliff, would you?’. Perhaps my answer should have been: ‘how high is the cliff? Is there water below?’ Or, more importantly, ‘how many people have already jumped off it?’ It also made me think about the Black Lives Matter movement, Sarah Everard, and the university strike(s).
Last year saw a huge push from thousands of students to have university fees reduced in line with the perceived value provided, or lack thereof, by universities over the pandemic. But universities have not shifted; the drive was not large enough, and there was a missing band of numbers. There was a ‘Zero,’ and there were ‘Ones’ and ‘Twos,’ all the way to the ‘Hundred-of-Thousands,’ but I never joined – I must have been in the latter Hundreds-of-Thousands, or possibly the Millions. The petition to lower the £9,250-a-year fees for universities gained 581,287 signatures. Perhaps with more people coming together, we would have seen a change. Maybe that change would have come about with votes in the millions, or possibly all it needed was the 581,288th vote, who’s to say? There will always be a figure that will form a threshold, but deriving this figure is somewhat harder than denoting it ‘x,’ especially before an event plays out.
The same reasoning can be applied to industrial strikes currently taking place in universities throughout the country, with the strength of the movement measured through its numbers. The influence of unions has been depleted ever since the times of Margaret Thatcher, where policies were introduced to reduce the power each individual has in propelling change. Now, the drive of communities provides less torque and as such, requires greater numbers to produce an equal effect. The University and College Union (those spearheading the strikes) need more supporters than they would have previously. They will be relying on a greater population of lower-numbered individuals to ensure that those more reluctant (the higher-numbered people) join the force and, in doing so, increase the likelihood of change being invoked within the system.
There will always be causes to stand for. Some may seem odd, wrong, or completely preposterous; you’ll have a number (or be an ‘Infinite’) regardless. You’ll join if that person does, or if x-many others do. Maybe it’s in publicly standing for BLM, Sarah Everard, or Ashling Murphy, or to get cheaper vaccines to third world countries. You may never join for some movements – a world full of ‘Infinites’ implies we live in a world that needs no change, a world where tomorrow should be exactly the same as today.