1. Because there are four reasons
The Romans had lead in their water pipes, the Victorians had arsenic in their wallpaper; the great spreading poison of our time is the microwave oven and the idea that everything can be most efficiently represented through numbers. Not that this is, strictly speaking, untrue — but there’s nothing as utterly false as a binary, numerical definition of truth.
Take, for instance, God. Obnoxious atheist types like to point out that God is an Iron Age fairy tale: fair enough, but what they forget to add is that fairy tales are all true. Beyond all the layers of tawdry eroticism, the symbols upon symbols masking quite ordinary cocks and cunts, old folk myths communicate a far more important reality. Fairy tales teach us that the world operates according to certain rules: some that we can understand, as if that’ll help us (things tend to happen in threes, a deal always comes with a catch); some that we can’t and never will (anything and everything is always subject to metamorphosis, there are familiar archetypes but nothing fully stable, the world is most likely a metaphysical conspiracy against you and your desires). The wolf and the grandmother and the prince and the beast and the pumpkin and the carriage are never quite solid but only stages in an endless universal transformation. Scientific rationalism, on the other hand, tells us that an atom of nitrogen has seven protons, that torque is equal to angular acceleration multiplied by rotational inertia, and that the universe is a passively operating mechanism to be opened up and tinkered with by an equally impersonal rational gaze until all its dark and musty corners are properly illuminated. All these facts might align with the best current model, but it’s not true in the same way that Red Riding Hood is true.
Numbers are still very efficient. If you’re investigating the protons in an atom of nitrogen, it’s a lot easier to just treat them as a mathematical principle of seven-ness rather than calling them by their names: Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, Bashful and Doc. Grumpy proton seizes Sneezy proton by the quark, Sleepy proton fails to emit the proper charge, soon the internal contradictions in the atom are impossible to hide – and we all know what happens when an atomic nucleus breaks apart. It’s safer to reduce everything to numbers, because doing so is always a possibility. After a while it becomes quite easy to forget what’s been lost; the world looks almost the same. Only the language changes. The top 5 times of the day you won’t believe Allah (swt) requires you to perform salaat. 95 reasons everything you thought you knew about the Catholic Church is wrong. 20 mind-blowing theses that will change the way you see the philosophy of history forever.
2. Because it’s a list
All forms fade. Nobody writes in epic poetry anymore, except for slightly strange types: men with greasy noses and lumpy facial hair who always seem slightly out of breath, penning vast sprawling accounts of martial valour in wonky scansion and forced rhyme. For several centuries the rule has been that if you want to tell a narrative story, you do it in prose. That era’s reached an exhausted end: the novel is dying, and the numbered list is leering over its hospital bed. It’s not even that people have stopped reading prose fiction, and for unknown reasons people are even continuing to write it: it’s just that prose no longer has the ability to describe and reflect the world. It’s impossible for a novel to describe a character using the internet, for instance — scrolling through Twitter’s endless stream with an expression as glassy and affectless as the screen in front of them, or using a calculating machine to have sex, buy drugs, and illegally download rock and roll – without it sounding like someone’s dad: desperately, cringingly failing to get down with the kids. The novel’s become so old and tired and paunchy that it’s easy to forget its blood-drenched origins. The boldness, the fire, the violence with which it overthrew the grand archaic chaos of the epic poem and replaced it with prosaic order; a titanomachy against titanomachies. In these more civilized times, we dispatch our old modes of writing like our aged pets: an injection with a sterilized needle, a last whimper, a dull and medicalized release from the tumult of being. Goodbye, old boy, you were good but you got too old.
Every shift in the dominant literary form, from epic poetry to the novel to the numbered list, involves a grand expansion of scale and an expansive scaling-back of grandeur. Epic poetry was only really suited to a particular type of story, generally one in which men in skirts spend a lot of time killing things. It’s a form for action, travel, conquest, great and terrible things; you couldn’t write an epic poem about three sisters who slowly reconcile after their mother’s death, or an old man painfully coming to terms with his past loves and losses. With the novel this space opened up a little. Suddenly it was possible to write stories that weren’t heroic, that approximated something resembling actual human life. Still this required a kind of stylization: events in novels have to be somehow significant and form some kind of cohesive whole (even if only through a repudiation of significance and cohesion). Actual existence, meanwhile, for the most part remained stubbornly pointless. The final victory of the numbered list will bring this process to completion. Everything can, in the end, be expressed through numbers.
The novel was merely tyrannical; the listicle is fully totalitarian — a totalitarianism all the more horrifying for the fact that it doesn’t restrict or censor but digests, consumes. There is no experience that can’t be remade in its matrix. At first online listicles contented themselves with repackaging and monetizing content from elsewhere on the internet; now they’re taking over the world. Lists don’t exist to communicate something unknown. Their secret plot is to reproduce in its totality the whole of existence — but in a form that is quantifiable, measurable, and reproducible. They dissect and atomize every facet of life, tearing our subjectivities to shreds and then putting them back together in a format that’s easily comprehensible and relatable and utterly banal. The 5 stages of eating an under-ripe tangerine. 12 things people say to you if you have wavy auburn hair. The top 7 objections to the Lacanian model of desire. There’s no escape: everything you could ever think, say, do, or be will already have its place somewhere on an online list, illustrated with a gif of a TV actress pulling a goofy face.
3. Because it’s in the future tense
Around three thousand years ago, the civilizations of the Bronze Age tore themselves apart as a weary planet tried to shake them off its back. For fifty years volcanoes blackened the sky, earthquakes rent the earth, tidal waves turned the fury of the seas against the land, massed barbarian invaders from the north armed with iron swords slaughtered their way through the countryside. Once the last tremors had died down and people at last began to bury the bodies, where there had been great and powerful empires there were now only isolated villages, shivering by the stumps of razed cities. A dark age that lasted for four hundred years. This was the era of noise and confusion that gave us fairy tales, the Trojan cycle, and monotheism: the idea that we are the idle playthings of God. It’s unlikely that these later achievements would have given much consolation to the millions that died, or the millions that had to endure the return to barbarism that followed. When the Iron Age Greeks looked at the great walls of Mycenae with their huge uncemented stones, they could only imagine that such structures had been built by Cyclopes, a brutish one-eyed monster. The idea that human beings could be capable of such feats had been lost.
If the future inhabitants of the Top 1 planet Earth on which you eke out a miserable existence know about the Cyclopes, it will only be from such literary classics as If you think your commute to work today was rough, you need to read this. Only the numbered list has the power to appropriate and recontextualize everything in existence, and that includes the forms of the past. For a while there might be a few strange old atavists who resist the inevitable transformation of their beloved stories into This young man decided to murder an unscrupulous money-lender, but what happened next may surprise you, or 14 unbelievable ways inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County have died, but they’ll go the way of the Mycenaeans before long, and in any case they’ll only be able to meaningfully express their objections in the form of a numbered list. Looping three-second gifs will punctuate every written statement, and it’s even possible that a few people might briefly consider the idea that these fragments once belonged to some kind of vast whole, an animated gif that lasted for five, maybe even ten minutes. Clearly such a feat of creative energy is beyond the reach of mere humans. These lost artifacts could only have been created by some kind of great extinct creature, a huge figure which through the narrow field of its single eye was able to ignore the constant distractions that plague ordinary men. In any case, it’s best to not think too much about these things – that is, unless you want to find yourself added to the Top 34,648,196 people you won’t believe have been sent for mandatory re-de-education.
Life isn’t exactly pleasant, but it’s portioned out into manageable chunks, and it’s over soon. The air is a homogeneous yellow haze and the oceans have been safely encased in a plastic film against the monsters that haunt its depths; there’s little alternative to spending most of your time inside. With the automation of the entire productive economy, from manufacturing to services to retail, the dream of full employment has finally been realized. Everyone can have a job, because nothing really needs doing. Every morning you drive to one of the enormous office farms that hulk in the fulvous smog and are given a set of tasks to complete: enter these six numbers into a spreadsheet, make a pie chart of these figures, send at least twelve emails. Your productivity is closely monitored: efficiency is important, and you can be fired immediately if you don’t meet your targets. Being sentenced to unemployment means only one thing. After a few nights sleeping on the streets, your lungs fill with a sulfurous gunk and you choke to death. Still, today’s tasks aren’t too onerous. They’ll give you at least six hours in which to indulge in the illicit thrill and singular joy of wasting time at work. Six hours for reading numbered lists.
4. Because it wants you dead
Everything can be reduced to numbers, but this is always a reduction. Human experience reduced to numbers isn’t really experience. Human life reduced to numbers isn’t really life. Numbers measure stable bodies that can’t transform themselves — in other words, corpses.
It’s too late now to stave off the world-conquering listicle simply by reading more books or championing long-form journalism. That battle’s already been lost, and in any case most books and most long-form articles are insipid nonsense. If we’re to survive, we have to strike the enemy at its heart: the number system. Ones and twos and threes can only fully represent a world that’s solely composed of ones and twos and threes. We still have just enough time. When we teach our children to count, we should remember the dangers that we’re inviting into our homes, and make sure the first numbers they know are a sword and a shield against the others. Ø, the singular infinity of the empty set; ∞, the infinite infinities of uncountable experience. Life is still possible, but time is running out. Hard choices must be made. Sentiment is a luxury. If you know someone collaborating with the enemy of humankind and sharing listicles like this one on social media, it doesn’t matter if they’re your oldest friend or your beloved relative or your lover. You need to delete them at once, before the poison spreads.