Theory of Mind in Numberblocks

5 Apr 2021

Rant 

Before I start this I should clarify something: yes, I know it’s just a show for kids, and I’m a fan of the lessons and techniques it’s using behind the candy-coated facade. However it’s also weirding me out in various ways, and so I felt this needed discussing. I’ve only actually watched the first two episodes (along with my toddler), but I think this got enough of the core concept over that I can at least vaguely talk about this.

For the uninitiated: Numberblocks is a children’s TV series about a group of singing number blocks (as the name might suggest). It starts at one, and builds up from there, introducing addition, subtraction, etc via the blocks joining and splitting apart. And this is where the weirdness starts…

In the second episode, One finds a magic mirror that lets them duplicate themselves, providing a version of the teleporter paradox. Thankfully One doesn’t appear to have enough of a personality for them to be worried about which one of them is “One” (also, that’s in line with the actual math lessons i.e. all “one’s” are the same), and they start to try and play tennis, but get stumped by only having one racket (as One only has “one” of anything that appears). Their attempts to solve this result in one of the One’s accidentally landing on top of the other one, which results in the creation of Two.

Two has a brand new personality, not seemingly devised from either of the two One’s that were only diverged by a handful of seconds (along with such matters as an orange colour, not the red of One, and some glasses). They want to say hi to One, but obviously can’t find them and then Two removes their top block entirely to split back into two One’s. The One’s then want to say hi to Two, reform into them, and the cycle continues (thus allowing the show to repeatedly go “1+1=2” on screen as they do so). Eventually one of the split out One’s realises they can make a third One with the mirror, which they do, and we have a One and a Two who can finally say hi and play tennis.

So, at one level it’s adorable, and the math lesson is solid. But it’s also really, really weird, especially to someone like myself who’s read far too many sci-fi stories about stored minds and so on. I mean, do the two One’s minds get suppressed when the Two gets made and then can come back after, or are they floating around in there but with no control? We can assume that even if they’re active, they’re not able to talk to Two, but I suspect they’re suspended given the lack of words like “we were trying to talk to you, but couldn’t!”. As the show goes on, and we get to some much bigger numbers this is just going to keep getting weirder, and in some cases it would matter what numbers we made another out of (i.e. a Three out of three Ones v.s. a Three out of a Two and a One).

If I was talented in that way, I’d be really tempted to write a gritty fanfic of Numberblocks that does something with all of this, as AO3 is clearly lacking in such matters, but right now I just have my brain going “but that’s just wrong” at the show.

Previously: Immutable Systems Infrastructure, or how to mashup Kubernetes and Nix