Here in Britain we have a simple phone number to dial in emergencies: 999. It’s easy to remember. You learn it as a child. You never forget it, even in an emergency. When the shit hits the fan, dial 999.
Except now we have another number: 111. It’s a new service for when you need help fast, but it’s not an emergency. Excuse me? If I need help fast, then it’s an emergency.
How many people will say to themselves, hmm, things look bad, but they could be worse, I think I’ll opt for a low-priority rescue? Currently, people dial 999 to ask where the nearest toilet is, or if anyone knows where they left their car keys. Do the authorities imagine that this kind of person will now start dialling 111 instead?
The most important thing about 999 is its simplicity. A child can remember it. Even a person who’s just crashed their car and is in a complete panic can remember it. It’s that simple. Please don’t mess with it.
Now, let’s think. If 111 is for low priority emergencies, and 999 is for high-priority ones, the logical thing is to introduce a hierarchy of numbers, 111, 222, 333, etc, depending on how bad things are.
- It’s cold outside and there’s a hole in my sock – call 111.
- My fridge is empty and I’m really hungry – call 222.
- Someone has jumbled my CD collection into a random order – call 333.
- I’ve lost my car keys – call 444.
- My cat has run off – call 555.
- An arch-devil is sitting in my front room, pulling menacing faces – call 666.
- My cat has run off with my car keys and there’s a hole in my sock – call 777.
- I drank too much, locked the cat in the fridge with the car keys and now I’m outside in the cold and there’s a hole in my sock – call 888.
- There is a genuine emergency and I require urgent medical attention – call 999.
One of the troubles with modern life is that there are far too many numbers. The Ancient Greeks were one of the first societies to grapple with the problem of numbers. They invented a word for the biggest number they could imagine. They named it the myriad.
Do you know how big a myriad is? Ten thousand.
My telephone number is bigger than that. Most people earn at least that much in a year. A myriad is nothing these days.
So you see, there are already far too many numbers in the world. Please don’t create any more.