By Ben Falik
The only absolute binaries that I know — things that can truly be only one or the other — are the following: unique and non-unique, pregnant and phew. Those can only be those. Every other concept, group, pattern, threshold or delineation I have ever encountered allows for some variation, however small, between or around the two alternatives.
So, other than being unique or pregnant (FYI: I am neither currently), any binary can be broken. It can be shattered into three or five or infinite variations and possibilities that can be blended and combined indefinitely.
And yet we love to reduce things to binaries:
Good or evil, right or wrong, male or female, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, east or west, north or south, with us or against us, city or suburbs, pensions or art.
This is a product of our time. The most prominent binaries in our life, after all, are the zeros and ones that serve as the building blocks for every digital expression, image, video, program or application. In the digital world, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished with enough zeros and ones.
Google has rewired my brain. I was a beta tester for Gmail and my inbox currently has 42.71 gigabytes of zeros and ones. To say nothing of Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Voice and Google Drive (no, not that kind of Google Drive … yet).
So I could both empathize with and blame Larry Page, one of Google’s co-founders, when I read this:
“Asked about his approach to running the company, Page once told a Googler his method for solving complex problems was by reducing them to binaries, then simply choosing the best option. Whatever the downside he viewed as collateral damage he could live with.”
Other tectonic shifts have produced similar collateral damage. Industrial mass production fueled the military industrial complex and sent Robert McNamara to run the Defense Department. Catholicism empowered the pope to divide the New World between the Spanish and the Portuguese in 1493. Imagine how popular “torch it” must have been in response to cave-man problems.
The problem is that binaries rob us of the nuance of life. They deprive our prefrontal cortexes — our beautiful, evolved prefrontal cortexes — of holding and synthesizing complex information in holistic and non-linear ways. Instead, the reptilian parts of our brain reduce everything to friend or foe, fight or flight, food or kale.
I am binary prone and I am committed to the practice of noticing when I find myself in life’s optometrist’s chair (Better now or better now? Better now or better now?) and pushing back on myself in favor of more possibilities.
The most dangerous binary in community service is that of benefactor and beneficiary: Everyone involved is either serving or being served. And here in a region that has such sharp divisions, the course of (or at least the narrative of) least resistance is this: One group doing for another what it cannot do for itself.
Shifting that — to everyone doing together what no one could on their own — has been the preoccupation or occupation of my entire adult life. And I have only begun to go beyond the binary. It takes patience and persistence and, maybe more than anything, a willingness to fail.
So here’s wishing you and yours nuance, texture, contours, margins, elasticity, alternatives, variations, hybrids, syntheses, trial and error, hypothesis and conjecture, mixing and mashing up of all the elements of life in the kaleidoscope through which we view it.
That, after all, is what separates us from the machines. At least for now.