Let me count the ways – An Irishman’s Diary on the abacus

“Like greed, the mighty abacus never sleeps.” Photograph: iStock

“Like greed, the mighty abacus never sleeps.” Photograph: iStock


How did the abacus get infantilised? This complex instrument we rendered safe and childish and turned into a frippery of the Victorian nursery.

We have mockingly demeaned it into a linear bar at the front of the pram, on which the young protégé gets to slap beads from side to side in cold, calculating tantrums.

The abacus has long been turned into a toy. Stripped of power and arithmetic, it becomes a plaything, a kindergarten ornament, a mere rattle. When it is the cog of every empire.

The civilisation without a toga-clad sapient clutching an abacus is no civilisation at all. That frame with beads is a symbol for commerce and counting the cost. The statues of antiquity portray the mathematician and merchant with their abacuses, just as the poet clutches his quill, the warrior wields the sword, and the explorer angles the sextant. Mortal, we will calculate your days and survey the quantities of your existence against limited supply. Mortal, we will write your lives and histories in wretched poems. Mortal, we will plot paths around the world and open up trade routes. And some of us, mortal, will sail right up to your coastal conurbation and enslave, colonise and exploit you for as long as historically possible. For good and bad, the abacus played its part.

The abacus has been erased from modern life. As portable as – and far more pleasing than – a small chartered accountant, it has a lot in common with the cruel physical workings of the rack, the gallows and the guillotine. An ensemble of wood, rope or wire, it is a miniaturised structure; too small to impress, it is an essential lever of force.

For the scale was all wrong. Had the abacus been constructed to tower above us, like the rack, the gallows and the guillotine, it would serve as a giant torturing reminder of relative quantities, of costs, of passing time, of dwindling planetary resources.

Let us reimagine stock exchanges the world over: colour-coded floor staff clamber up lengthy ladders to drag an enormous bead or two a shade to the left or right to signal the most minute fluctuation of price. Picture towering abacuses in Wall Street, Threadneedle Street, the IFSC: all muscular display mechanisms for the latest juggernaut economic indicators. Like greed, the mighty abacus never sleeps.

But large or small, it is a machine of notional quantity, a device for the idea of numbers. Each bead is one, 10, 100, a million. Here is a capture of the world of vast multiples, the casual magnification of quantity at the deft flick of a finger.

For abacuses are about numbers. We carry these numbers and call them our age. Age is an index of health and vitality and generational taste – it puts you in your 20s or 50s. Whatever. These age numbers are identities for the dark actuaries that circle overhead, that stalk us and count our days.

We nurse our current age incredulously for periods of up to one year before discarding that figure and settling on a newer and scarily higher set of annual digits.

We walk around in an innumerate stupor. We throw numbers at points in the day and call it time. Three o’clock. Four o’clock. Soon these clock digits tell us it is time to go home.

In our daily innumerate stupor, money is another last bastion where numbers reside. But even the numeracy of physical money is disappearing. We don’t carry around countable cash anymore. Bank cards facilitate our most banal act of commercial exchange – we let distant electronic digits deplete with every purchase. “Want to just tap?” Yes.

But is this a fair swap of relative quantities, this purchased item for this sum of cash? “Huh?”

Fingers are the manual, physical template for our number system and the decimal basis of our currencies. We walk around, our hands holding together our fists. Confronted by the hand of a deserving beggar, we are at a more luxurious loss than they in having no actual money on us to proffer. With our deepening digital footprint, numbers have been pickpocketed from our lives.

The statues of antiquity still cherish the abacus. In the corner of a nursery, our twee mimics sit. The abacus infantilised. A discarded cog of relative quantities. A thing we no longer count on.

Employee: “Sir, I have just done a few calculations, here on my abacus. I have worked out you no longer need my outdated services. For in truth I am too expensive.”

Boss: “Splendid work. How will we ever do without you?”

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