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If people were graphs, the last few weeks has been a process of shrinking our centres, reducing our nodes to lower and lower degrees and greying out our connections with other humans into virtual or non-existent ones. The aim, of course, has been to minimise the edges in the network of our daily lives, to deplete them enough so that the errant and frightening COVID-19 virus is no longer able to splash across these pathways at such a breakneck speed. This shrinking of connections has happened along with the closing up of ourselves into the domestic and local domain, centring and reducing our professional selves on top of our personal selves until the two have merged almost completely. In 2019 we might have been shocked at the thought of changing a nappy during a business meeting, or giving a presentation with a cat on our lap. We might have been horrified at the thought of our co-workers knowing such intimate details about our lives as the books on our bookshelves or the paintings in our living rooms. Now, all of us – all of us who are privileged office workers, at least – have become more human, more fragile; diminished and smaller. We have shrunk down to the size of a screen, an office chair, a disembodied face. We are as pinprick-tiny as a wavering broadband connection point.
Our needs have shrunk too: from lofty foreign holidays and favourite urban café-made espressos we have suddenly been reduced to the serious business of locally sourcing fresh fruit, toilet roll and milk. We are making, reusing and reducing waste; we are focusing on essentials only. We have taken off the flamboyant ties and the high heels, put on the pyjama bottoms and slippers and become our more essential ourselves, more raw. Health is our most precious resource, more important even than that meeting at 10am or that email that needs to be sent. We are comforting our children, having morning tea with our partners, taking care of our bodies. Stripped of what was distracting us, we are seeing ourselves as bare again, and so very vulnerable. We are reconsidering what matters: that is, asking what the matter or core substance of our lives is if we strip away the outer layers. So much that we thought was essential has turned out to be just another bit of the orange peel. We have shrunk our thinking too, to the core. What are we made of?
But shrinking and growing can be achieved in two ways: by the manipulation of the object itself (us), or by the scale of the background grid you are measuring against (the context or the axes). Maybe we are not diminished at all; maybe this global crisis is just so enormous it makes us feel that way. If you zoom out, even a whole country can look tiny. This continual zooming out and in from the huge, global concerns of a pandemic, with the numbers to match, to the tiny, human drama of our domestic lives, can feel dizzying and disorientating. A million sick people out there is so terrible as to be hardly imaginable; but just one at home is big enough to fill our minds with worry, too.
As part of our work on the Framework, we have written about scaling and zooming as crucial parts of mathematical literacy. The ability to move flexibly between zoom windows, recognising relationships that may be linear, exponential or fractal by their behaviour when you zoom, makes up part of mathematical experience that connects across topics of statistics, number, functions and measurement. Similarly, the idea of re-expression – changing the scale to foreground a relationship into looking more linear – helps us to understand that relationships, however complicated, can be expressed more simply when we want only to look at certain features. But another crucial defining feature of working with the Framework is the consideration of context. In the current context of COVID-19 we are all looking at graphs first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening; exponential relationships have never had so much attention. But those graphs are not just about maths: they are about humanity. The zooming and scaling happening here is not only representing life and death itself but is prompting decisions that will have far-reaching consequences for us all. Understanding graphs has become a global moral responsibility; the growth of the virus has been in perfect correlation with the shrinking of our attention on it.
For some, this shrinking has resulted in a paradoxical growing, too, as they take advantage of the new set of expectations around digital communication – and also respond rationally to fear and isolation – to reach out to those they may not have spoken to in a while. More new local connections have inevitably blossomed too – being suddenly confined to your home and the walking distance around it has prompted more neighbourly cohesion, more of a sense of community than perhaps we could ever have imagined. The grand scale of the disaster has helped us to zoom in on what matters. We are also growing in our understanding of how our individual actions, multiplied up at scale, really do make a difference in the world.
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