The World as 100 People

An interesting perspective of an interesting perspective.

After the "interesting perspective" had made its way to the far end of the internet and back to me a couple of times, and then was copied as part of the "Diversity" push at the company where I work, I paid a little closer attention to it.

In one version, the final point stuck out oddly: "no one would have a computer." No one? Really?

I'm kind of a fan of statistics, and they can interest me even if they're dry. But there was something about putting simple percentages in terms of people that made them curiously more compelling.

"If we could at this very moment, shrink the earth's population to just 100 people..."

If what followed were "then each person would be one percent, get it?" it probably would have spoiled the magic. But we can imagine about 100 people without too much trouble. And imagining myself as one of those 14 western hemisphere residents, compared with the 86 in the eastern hemisphere... well hey, I'm a minority, aren't I?

But of course, I wouldn't be a whole person, I'd just be a small body part. Something weighing about a milligram. Part of a fingernail, say, or a couple hairs. (If we could at this very moment, imagine the world with 6,000,000,000 people in it... then each of us would be just 1/6,000,000,000th of the world population.)

In terms of percentages, 1% of the world population is about 60 million right now. So, for statistics reported in terms of whole percentages (whole people in our 100-person shrunken world), it takes 30 million to get off the ground, to go from "no one" to "only one," assuming we're going to round the numbers.

In the early 90s, it might well have been true that "no one" (i.e. less than 0.5% of the world population) had a computer. In the mid-90s, it wasn't. In mid-1999, it's estimated that more than 350 million PCs are in use worldwide. Fewer users, I suppose... some of us account for more than one! (Just counting personal computers, by the way. If we got a little more technical, a whole lot of the world has computers coming out of their ears. Or at least right up next to their ears, as in cell phones.)

So I wondered, who made this thing up? Somebody out of 6 billion of us thought of that clever expression of a few population statistics, looked them up (I hope) in a reliable source, and sent it off in an email, starting with something like

If it makes sense to you, forward it to a friend.
at the beginning. S/he sent it out to a bunch of people by email, and several of them were piqued, and forwarded it on. Now the prefix was
This was forwarded to me by a friend. If it makes sense to you, forward it to a friend.

If the world were a village of 100 people...
6 of us (2 in the US, 2 in Europe) would have PCs.

Ten years ago, nobody was on-line; three years ago, only 1 of us was. Now, 4 or 5 are, at least occasionally.

Of regular internet users, 2 of us speak English, 1 of us speaks ten other languages.

As of mid-1999. Sources:

From a bit of searching on the web, it looks like this got started in late 1995. The Feminist Women's Health Center noted that the information was based on 1995 statistics, on a page they copyrighted 1996. (Updated 29.Oct.2002: the FWHC page is now here, and points to a page describing Donella Meadows' use of the metaphor.)

A general search on dejanews turned up a January 5, 1996 post from David T. Witkowski, then at Like all shared stories, this one has been modified along the way. Witkowski finished his post with

...and only 1 would have a university education.
It's that last sentence that scares me...

Some of the statistics have been dubious from the beginning. The wealth factoid, "50 percent of the entire world's wealth would be in the hands of 6 people - all 6 would be US citizens", guaranteed to light up any latent liberal angst, might be in the neighborhood, but it can't be right. 5.5 times 60 million is 330 million, about a third more people than live in the US. What does it mean to say that the whole population of the US has half the world's wealth, anyway?

So, it's folklore, but still interesting for all that. The phenomenon is more interesting to me than the factoids, at this point. I particularly like the personal touches that have been added. For example...
"The impact of information technology will be even more radical than the harnessing of steam and electricity in the 19th century. Rather it will be more akin to the discovery of fire by early ancestors, since it will prepare the way for a revolutionary leap into a new age that will profoundly transform human culture."
"So look around you and embrace your fellow citizens of the world, all members of a village called humanity, who breathe life into this planet each in a unique manner and for only a miniscule moment in time - then leave their individual legacies to form, molecule by molecule and compound by compound, the history of the human race.

"We are one. Let's love one another, living and working together in peace and shared prosperity."
A webpage for a college course, worth loading for the images, including (a detail of?) Bernini's "Ecstasy of St.Teresa" (for the "Conversion Experiences" class), and for its bibliography.

"As you can see, being in college is a rare privilege. Teaching you is a rare privilege. Let us both make good use of this opportunity. NOW LET US LEARN TOGETHER"
Dr. Matrix's modestly titles "Summary of the World" page has a population counter on it, running at 6,068,575,940 when I stopped in.
"Si miramos nuestro mundo de una perspectiva tan increíblemente reducida, se evidencia la necesidad urgente por tolerancia y comprension."
Cited from a speech by General John J. Sheehan, USMC, to the conference on the United States and European Security in Lisbon October 9, 1997. His text leaves "America" off the wealth stat, "Fifty percent of the entire world wealth would be in the hands of only 6 people." That seems more likely. (Are you one of them?!)
"Even if the following isn't true, it should at least make you think."
"Six would attend church regularly
18 would have heard that Jesus Christ loves them and died on the cross for their sins"
"(Now how do we get this message across to the people who don't have email?)"
"No one would own a computer" means this market still has upside potential.
"When one considers our world from such an incredibly compressed perspective, the need for both tolerance and understanding becomes glaringly apparent, but let's move the sharp focus to Japan where there are some critical issues facing the markets and, on the face of it, the Japanese consumer is becoming increasingly more fickle. We have to win the sale everyday here. We cannot afford to be seduced by globalism for the sake of it - uniformity is fine so long as you get incremental scale benefits and not the lowest common denominator."

I saved the best one for you, a reader who made it all the way to the end of this tiny sample of what's out there.

"No one would surf.

"Surfing is a rare blessing, a limited resource to be enjoyed and appreciated. It is experienced by many different types of waveriders, and whether it's done with your body, a surfboard, a bodyboard, or somethine else it's still surfing, utilizing the same waves and surfing locations. Our respect for the earth and the oceans should be reflected as well in our attitudes in the lineup, in a spirit of respect for our surfing friends and in the spirit of peace among the surfing tribes."

Something to think about ... when considering the need for both tolerance and understanding.

If we could at this very moment shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely 100 — but maintain the existing human ratios — it would look like this:

57  Asians
21  Europeans
14  Western Hemispheric People
    (North and South Americans)
8  Africans
70  Non-white
30  White
70  Non-Christian
30  Christian
70  Unable to read
50  Malnourished
80  Live in substandard housing
1  University graduate
50% of the entire world's wealth would be in the hands of 6 people — all citizens of the United States.
Thanks to Val Callahan for the paper copy of this with the "1985" citation noted.

Footnote, 12.May 2001

Searching the web for sources may make it appear that lots of things started around 1995, only because that's when the web took off. Some older source material has been brought on-line, but folklore is much less likely to be.

Two years after I first posted this page, another researcher of the topic found this page, and passed along a paper copy that had a believable — but still tantalizingly elliptical — citation:

From an ERIC Search of United Nations Demographic Data, September 1, 1985. These statistics were compiled by a Chicago Public Schools administrator and were taken from the Association for Retired Citizens Newsletter, Vol. 16, Issue 6, June 1990.

We're left to wonder, who was the public school adminstrator who started this 16 years ago?

Footnote, 10.Aug.2003

Two more years later, and a new lead from a correspondent who heard that one Phillip M. Harter, an M.D. at Stanford had been the original source. But Fast Company has an article with the good doctor's own denial along with its own updated statistics, complete with the researcher's name, from March 2001. It seems that the added gravity of Harter's authoritative .sig made the metaphor even stronger for its forwarders.

Footnote, 25.May 2008

There's now a photographer and a filmmaker who want to turn the idea into a movie. They've got a nice website going with the domain. Their history covers some of what I found, settles on Donella Meadows as the prime mover, which may be close enough to the cause of it going viral.

Unfortunately (from my point of view), their statistics and sources remain a jumbled and weakly dated mix of multiple versions. No one's taken on the task of showing how our "world as 100 people" has changed so remarkably in the last three decades. 34 would be cell phone subscribers is a good example that sounds like it could be up-to-date. "No one has a cell phone" would have been an accurate capture of the state of the art when this thing started in the 1980s.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Sunday, 25-May-2008 12:14:23 MDT