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The numbers game in a numbers world

/ Source: Forbes

This story is strictly by the numbers.

It's also about the numbers we live by — the digits we use every day during routine financial transactions, the scores that determine our future and the figures (pardon the expression) that drive us nuts when look in the mirror.

There's an irony to the cascade of numbers: They reduce individuals to a string of digits yet allow us to define ourselves in the sea of humanity. An account number on defines our reading preferences.

Yes, but who wants to have a personal relationship with a computer?

Dr. Hai Ren, professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says the name of the game is “personalized consumption.”

“It's all about how individuals can be identified in the population at large,” he says. “We use these numbers to connect with people we don't know. Ironically, these numbers allow individuals to manage their own lives without relying on others.”

Big-buck industries have developed in an effort to alter the numbers. Test prep courses, weight loss plans and cholesterol-cutting drugs such as Pfizer's Lipitor spring to mind.

That nasty cholesterol number is often a topic of discussion in the getting-thick-between-the-pockets set. Worldwide sales of cholesterol-fighting drugs total $26 billion, including $10 billion for Lipitor, IMS Health reports. Fat plumps the bottom line: Merck and Schering-Plough recently launched a competitor, Vytorin.

Junk mail sells. In 2004, direct mail expenditures will hit an estimated $36 billion, or about 10 percent of U.S. media and marketing expenditures, reports Kubas Consultants, a market research firm in Toronto. Direct mail wouldn't deliver sales as effectively without the humble ZIP code.

Kaplan, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., is known for its test preparation courses, including SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, CPA, TOEFL and, well, you get the idea. The score on such tests can determine a career. Eduventures, a market research and strategy consulting firm in Boston, estimated the size of the test prep industry in 2003 at $460 million for college admissions and $150 million for graduate school.

Consumers pay billions a year to yak on the phone. Many businesses pay extra for a catchy number that will stick in our heads, but most of us are stuck with the number the phone company gives us. For some, this number is an endless source of aggravation. Thanks, Verizon, SBC Communications and BellSouth, for ten wonderful digits.

Some numbers have entered the language. There's nothing metaphorical about a batting average — it's a measure of each player's performance reduced to a stark, easy-to-understand three-digit number that appears every day in the box score. But it's also become a figure of speech for success. Young swains talk about their “batting average” with the ladies, and if you're “batting .500” in making tough decisions, the boss can flip a coin and save on your salary.

Unless you were traumatized by a decimal point in your youth, you can count these life-defining numbers on your fingers and toes: credit score, SAT, cholesterol, Social Security, batting averages, phone numbers, ZIP codes, waist size, interest rates, miles per gallon, dress size, speed limit, body mass index, Dow Jones Industrial Average, grade point average, golf handicap, IQ, weight, PIN, blood pressure, RAM.... And?