The influence of numbers in popular culture
Human civilization has always been dependent on numerical systems to promote order, uniformity and stability. From Sumerians and Egyptians to Greeks and Arabs, the most advanced early cultures were the ones founded on consistent mathematical principles that represented the rule of logic over chaos and the scientific idea that there is a pattern to the events we witness.
Beyond the scientific uses of numbers, however, we move into the realm of conspiracy theories and superstition that are imbedded deep within our popular culture. Certain numbers have become staples of our mentalities simply because a single person used them as a theme in a wider work. Others have attracted attention for unusual, sometimes seemingly connected occurrences in daily life or historical events.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the number 23. Popularized by Jim Carrey’s 2007 psychological thriller film The Number 23, the origin of the “23 enigma” can be traced back to the 1960s and fiction writer William S. Burroughs. After observing several events directly or indirectly tied to the number 23, such as the pilot of the crashed Flight 23 and the captain of a wrecked sailing ship, who had sailed 23 years without incident, having the same name, Burroughs focused intensely on the number and its possible hidden meanings.
Robert Goldberg, professor of American history at the University of Utah and author of the book Enemies Within: the Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America, said that the development of such conspiracy theories in the U.S. is due to several historical factors: suspicion of a strong centralized government, the belief that the essential good America supposedly represents inevitably attracts evil to destroy it, and a fear that the country’s unity may make it vulnerable to enemies from within.
Goldberg said part of the reason such theories have staying power is not only the conspiracy buffs themselves, but their portrayal by the media.
“Hollywood entertains us with a steady diet of conspiracy thinking; that conspiracies are real, that they have power and that they seek to do us harm,” Goldberg said. “In that kind of environment a person can come to believe in their power a lot easier.”
Goldberg also said conspiracy obsession can arise out of a person’s own subconscious desires.
“For some people, conspiracies give order to the random, and clarity out of ambiguity; that they are privy to some secret knowledge and that they can use it to change things,” Goldberg said. “Conspiracies assure people that for whatever they think is going wrong there are definite culprits out there who have been identified and who can be stopped. That kind of idea provides a great deal of security and emotional stability.”
Another example involves the significance of the number 42, appearing in the works of English satirist and author Douglas Adams. When penning the sci-fi cult classic series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, at one point Adams postulates that the answer to the ultimate question of “life, the universe and everything” is best interpreted as the number 42. When the characters in the story express dissatisfaction with the answer, they learn that it doesn’t make sense to them because they also don’t understand the question.
As Adams wrote more additions to the Guide series, the number 42 began to appear everywhere, from the number of chapters in one of his books to the street address of a fictional bar. Adams even created a special puzzle, called the 42 Puzzle, for fans who were obsessed with discovering the significance of the number. Adams himself received no end of amusement from craze he had started, though there is no definite answer to what caused him to choose the number 42. While some enthusiasts speculate that he was inspired by the works of fellow British writer Lewis Carroll, who also used the number 42 as a recurring motif in stories such as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, others believe that it was originally a stand-alone joke and chosen completely at random.
In terms of current media, fewer numbers have a more zealous following than the sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 that appeared as a recurring enigma on the television series Lost. The numbers, which added together equal 108 (another mysterious, reoccurring number in the show), were seen in nearly every aspect of the show. Overwhelmingly considered as a special sign in the show’s context, the numbers have inspired legions of fans to enter them on lottery tickets in hopes that they really do contain power.
Joy Sperling, a professor of art history at Denison University and president of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, said she believes numbers serve as markers of place in popular culture to tie people or characters to fixed concepts like social status.
Sperling said the anchoring power of numbers in our minds makes us feel secure, and that advertisers often use this knowledge to their advantage.
“A magazine title that offers a reader ‘five ways to remove belly fat’ will draw many more customers than one that simply gives ‘strategies to remove belly fat’,” Sperling said. “It’s not open-ended, and as a marker of place you can get a quick fix when using concrete terms like numbers.”
Sperling also said that like many other people, she became obsessed with the hype surrounding Lost’s numbers and felt very let down when their meaning was left unexplained.
“We want stories to explain the mysteries of life to us in a simple manner that we can understand,” Sperling said. “A lot of times we consider numbers to have some kind of mystical charge so that we still get a sense of excitement and wonder out of a supposedly cut-and-dry rational system like math. In high culture it’s usually fine to leave something open-ended so people can ponder it philosophically, but in popular culture we want the comfort and solidity of answers to these questions.”
Kyle Robertson is a junior journalism major who doesn’t care about your Lost theories. Email him at krobert4[at]ithaca.edu.