Friday, May 16, 2008

the entertainment value of binary thinking

-OR- "binary thinking for fun and scant profit"

In this case, the term "binary thinking" has no relation to the nerdy timepiece you might have that befuddles less pretentious people by its lack of prosaic numerals. Binary thinking is dividing a domain into exactly two distinct sections, which may be opposites. Binary thinking uses concepts like true/false, real/fake, thesis/antithesis, good/bad, correct/borked, etc.

My point is not that binary thinking is necessarily bad and thinking in modes other than binary is necessarily good. (You see there? That would have been an example of binary thinking in action.) In a small-scale, limited, well-defined context, binary thinking is indispensable. A mathematical calculation is one of those contexts; the answer is right or wrong. A test case of an isolated computer program module is another context; the output meets the test case's check or it doesn't. More fancifully, an imaginary reality also qualifies; its events and rules are consistently presented or not.

The problem arises when someone applies binary thinking to one of the many, many practical domains that aren't small-scale, limited, and well-defined. Much of the time, two mental sections just aren't sufficiently expressive or representative to reach the best conclusion or solution. In fact, from a perspective that is unrestricted by this limitation, binary thinking can be laughable. This is the entertainment value of binary thinking, its guilty pleasure: the struggles of those trapped by it are a fine subject for schadenfreude.

Arguments between binary thinkers who speak for opposite sides kick the amusement level up a further notch. As they bicker and continue to employ the same tired rationales, spectators who don't at all acknowledge the underlying binary division can observe how each of them is right on some aspects, wrong on others, and sometimes partially right through not noticing the absurd assumption that's blocking his or her perception. Comparing the exchange to a battle between gladiators is misleading because that implies that one of them actually wins. When they steadfastly refuse to accept that the other speaks out of anything but personal bias, their own bias is unshakable.

One shouldn't start to slip, binary-thinking-style, into asserting that the titillating on-line and off-line communication skirmishes of binary thinkers are altogether useless in the productive pursuit of truth. When they do, observers learn a lot, ideally about the pros and cons of both sides. In addition, this form of conflict however "bloody" is still preferable to when people attempt to silence each other through force (and I don't mean just physical force). Binary thinking is also preferable to the even more close-minded alternative of unary thinking: complete thought conformity. Cue Winston Churchill:
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.