Beautiful Binary

November 6, 2011
Everything is not as it once was. It used to be that the only relevant number system was decimal. Increasingly, though, everything can be described as a construct of ones and zeroes, and that the analog version is only a phantom of the past – something to be looked upon with disdain as a relic of a world long forgotten. Today, more operations are performed by a single processor every second than could possibly be done by a person in a day, week, or even year. We live in an age where computations are performed on the scale of billions of operations per second, yet those operations aren't perfect because binary is incapable of perfectly modeling the world with perfect precision.

When I was younger – before I even knew what RAM was – I recall feeling the warm glow of the television with my parents. There were political debates on the TV because the cyclical blood sport that is an American election was just around the corner and every candidate wanted Americans to know how different they were from the others. Now, how does a stuffed suit differentiate itself from the other suits? Much like they carefully construct the partisan colors of their three-piece suits, they build their mindsets up into a series of stark ideological contrasts – binary beliefs that are easily identifiable by their extremity. When I heard how the array of candidates only offered two views, the “liberal” and the “conservative”, I wondered how that could be. I turned my head away from the TV and asked my parents, “Why do we only have two ways of dealing with the immigrants? Why can’t both of those guys be right?” To my parents, and perhaps most Americans, most issues have a right answer and a wrong answer, and there are few nuances to the complex problems the world faces.

In a microprocessor, everything is broken down into true or false, 0V or 5V, because that how electrical switches work. For the kind of basic arithmetic they were originally designed to handle, that range of values was acceptable. However, as time progressed, computers began to be implemented in a range of other fields. In the music industry, for example, songs became digitized, transforming them from waveforms to 0s and 1s, and in that transformation, some of their authenticity was lost. Now, that loss of authenticity didn’t come without tangible benefits. With the age of digital music came portability that could have only been dreamt of by artists from the ‘70s. The problem with digitizing parts of the real world is that binary digits are incapable of perfectly reflecting the quirks and nuances of our world. Like a company who tries to mass-produce replicas of famous art works, they can get the general feel of the artwork right, but often the small details are lost in the name of cost-effectiveness. It's for this reason that some people can justify that a vinyl record sounds better than an mp3 file from a computer. This reversion to the old way of listening to music is actually a rather widespread occurrence, and even I, a computer science student born in the ‘90s, have a record player in my room.

When political beliefs are digitized – that is, turned into a series of binary decisions – the same problem occurs. Real-world problems cannot be turned into 0s and 1s without somehow becoming untrue to the core issues. So when I was younger and I questioned the binary treatment of illegal immigration, the only reason I could think that way was that my mind hadn't yet been digitized by modern society. I thought the way humans naturally do, instead of the way that computers have taught us to think. Even in countries where multiparty political systems give the illusion of a complicated thought process, individual issues are often turned into yes/no answers. I continued to question my parents about the deeper nuances of illegal immigration, but much like any microprocessor would never understand commands given in American English, my parents didn't understand why I was asking these questions and couldn't answer them and at times thought I was kidding.

So why is it that we accept computers, with their deep-rooted issues and their inability to accurately reflect the real world? Why is it that we are able to be happy compromising with computers and accepting a world view that is so far from the truth? It is because computers make things easy. So what if at its core a computer cannot accurately contain the number 6.1778972? It still sends emails faster and with less trouble than physically mailing a letter. Maybe that's good. There are certain applications for which computers do exceedingly well, but what about those things that they can only give the illusion of representing from our physical world? What about all of the beautiful things that they only cast a shadow of? Are we to simply accept a computer's flawed representation as our own? To trick ourselves with a vision of our own artful, civilized, design?

When I queried my parents about the deeper issues, I think they began to see what I saw. There was a spark in their eyes that indicated to me that they could now understand the number system I was talking in. They could see that illegal immigration isn't simply a question of allowing certain natural patterns of migration to occur. It's an issue of economics. It's an issue of human rights. It's an issue of questioning what the "American Dream" really is, and I think my parents began to see that, using my unconverted view of the world. Their understanding of the world had begun the slow, painful transformation back to the virginal processing style of a person who does not presume to know right or wrong - if such absolutes can even exist.

It's not only this one issue that my mindset applied to either. Whenever any hot topic would come on the TV, and I would ask my parents about it, I feel that they learned almost as much as I did. Whether it be about gay marriage, the war on terror (or drugs), or how to deal with Julian Assange for leaking sensitive U.S. documents, these issues couldn't be broken down into right or wrong, left or right, 0 or 1. No matter how much the world has come to rely on computers, there is still a place for good, old-fashioned, complex human thought. The original data center - the human mind - still has a place in the increasingly automated network of human society.





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