Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Binary Code and Ambiguity

There’s been a question floating around in my mind for the last few weeks and I’m really curious whether anyone has any thoughts.

I believe there is more ambiguity in our world than there ever was and I’ve got a few reasons why:

  1. We are living in the information age. No one person has enough time to read everything (even in their particular field). As a result, there are more generalists.
  2. The internet has given people access to an almost infinite number of opinions and ideas. There are any number of variations on any topic and whether someone actually consumes them or not, the awareness of multiple viewpoints is very important. In a way it legitimizes ambiguity.
  3. Digital technology has allowed us to change our definition of both space and time. When you pick up the phone to call customer service you could easily be talking to the other side of the world. In many ways, physical proximity no longer matters as much as it once did.

All three of those things, I believe, can eventually be tracked back to digital technology. Whether it’s used as a tool for research, distribution or communication, it has fundamentally altered almost every aspect of modern life.

Especially lately, this has manifested itself for me in a desire to move away from dualities (whether it’s right/wrong, good/bad, either/or). The problem is a label like that is often defined by the other side (good by bad, for example), rather than its own unique set of values. Take politics for instance, simply labeling a terrorist as ‘bad’, hardly speaks to the nuances of terrorism and I believe leads to an un-winnable war where a country tries to use hierarchical and rational techniques to fight an enemy who is subscribing to neither (they are organized in a non-linear fashion and motivated by faith).

Now onto my question. If you buy into what I’ve said so far then you believe digital technology has played a major part in the greying of the world. How then do you explain the the underlying code is binary? How did this pure duality lead to an age so rich in ambiguity?

Please help me out with this one.

October 30, 2006


  • Loren Feldman says:

    I would love to answer, but I can’t even understand the question. I so should have focused more in school. Nonetheless my answer is – Maybe.

  • mark says:

    Ok, great question. Here’s my take on it:

    There is no direct link between what the computer does (which is binary logic) and what humans do with the results they see on the computer screen or the data they enter into the system. What creates ambiguity is not the binary logic of the system but the nonsensical way people have decided to add data to that system, and then interpret it, which is completely incoherent, contradictory, and, frankly, extremely stupid. The people who invented computers were scientists very involved with binary logic and science, and they were good decent people who estimated that humanity is on the verge of a new scientific age of enlightenment. What they were not was wise. They failed to recognize or acknowledge that instead of creating a civilization of people like themselves, computers would instead enable hordes and hordes of stupid people to leap into the malstrom and create an impossible and cataclysmic mess of it all, which is exactly what they did. Woopsie. So instead of building a system that ensures, insists, and tolerates nothing less than coherent data, which could have been used to build coherent knowledge and advance civilization, they decided to take the big short-cut and create the worlds biggest library without an index card system, and told everyone, in essense, “Well, just throw your stupid unverified junk in the middle and we’ll sort it out with Google! Yay!!!” Now this is the obvious and extremely predictable result. When business-Orcs took the reigns out of the hands of the scientists and insisted on using the marvelous Internet for Business in 1995 under the leadership of Darth Vendor, that was the death knell. We are now seeing the results and they are not pretty.

    To untangle the mess is actually very simple. Start over. Build something coherent. Make sure that it has Hard-Bound Authentication to eliminate the “dark-underbelly” of the Internet in all its myriad forms. Provide a coherent data structure and non-broken tools to build on the system.

    Best wishes.

  • Josh says:

    Hey, Noah –

    Thanks for the nice note you dropped me a week or two ago. I kept meaning to write back, but I am great about meaning to write back and not so great about writing back.

    I think you know your thesis is sound, because I found your page by way of a 33-second video of yours that came up when I searched YouTube for “mcluhan.” ;-) Anyway, at least I think you’re right, and I have been quietly bugging my friends for the past few years that the Greater Human Consciousness is shifting from a very Manichean conflict-based model to a three- or four-dimensional model based on configuration. Instead of being able to say A is “good” and B is “bad” anymore, we’re being forced to admit that A and B perform different functions in position X. Or position Y. (I could go on about this, but I keep finding that thoughtful use of the Internet seems to hinge on relative brevity; and for me, this has been relatively brief.)

    To answer your question, I would suggest two things (which I think may just be different ways of describing one thing): 1. From the physicist’s perspective, different rules apply on the scale of the very small (as in the level of binary code). 2. From the McLuhanist’s perspective, any medium amplified enough overheats and reverses into its opposite. When computers were first invented, the binary code could only operate in a dualist manner; they’ve become powerful enough now (I mean in terms of both processor speed, etc., and their widespread use) that the output of their fundamental structure has flipped.

    That’s a really good question, though, and I am going to keep it percolating.

  • liz says:

    Here goes …

    technology, complexity, binary code, convergence and divergence – and a world where we have so many choices. I think/feel that the internet and its supporting technology has created a kind of anarchy that no real time political/social or cultural movement has been able to do. And that anarchy has it’s own issues but it’s kind of like watching chaos theory and quantam physics playing out in an IT/people realm. As we can’t control life – neither can we control who connects and shares with each other.

    Can and do people go too far in their ‘addiction/use’ of the net? yeh, in the same way that some people will about any tool, substance or process. Is there crap and really bad quality stuff on the web – yeh, just like anywhere else. The continuum of quality, access, use and abuse is pretty much relevant to every aspect of the human condition – not just the net. At the very core people need to keep in mind that the net and all its technologies are really another tool – and – as with any tool, it’s value neutral. How we as individuals choose to use the tool is when we can either heal or hurt others.

    It’s almost as if there is a tapestry of complexity that’s reflected both in our lives and in the whole IT stuff -and – I don’t think that it’s as simple as one driving the other. Like a great conversation, there are a spiral of interlocking influences driven by multiple millions of people who are curious, engaged, committed and interested in exploring (and yeh, some exploiting)t his complexity – and enjoying the ride in the process. It’s like we all attract and invite the complexity to see/experiment with processes and results… and processes/results…ad infinitum and (as one commenter felt – ad nauseum). It’s kind of like the ultimate R&D experiment.

    Really enjoy your blog and the other thoughtful responses – keeps me thinking.

  • Michael Surtees says:

    Just like when you flip the switch to turn on light, most people aren’t thinking of how that power was generated. I think the same thing could be said about what binary code is making possible. When I turn on my computer, what I’m thinking about is access and the ability to communicate in an infinite number of ways. What I’m not usually thinking about is why apple and intel aren’t playing as nice as they should.

  • jeff says:

    We’re also living in an age where no one has credentials and everyone has a pulpit (the internet). Blog America has bred a nation of individuals who believe their opinions matter when in most cases they don’t. I’ve got a site. You’ve got a site. But what sorta makes our sites unique is we speak about things we’re qualified to speak about. Things we’ve studied or spent time engrossing ourselves in. You used to need degrees and learning to have opinions on certain matters. Not anymore. Not all you need is a socket and 19.95 a month.

  • candice says:

    Binary is what makes it all work, by its sheer simplicity. If you break anything down far enough, you can record it. And from there copy and move and on and on.

    Take for example, ballet. All of ballet works within a very strict framework of positions and movements, which when combined together can create something as grand as Giselle. Every step has a simple name, in French, which is the same in Moscow or Paris as it is in London or New York. (Method differences on specific steps excepted – usually those are just details.) An advanced ballet class usually consists of a teacher giving directions without examples: just words and corrections.

  • barbara says:

    I think this post, and the comments it has elicited, are a great illustration of why — as Noah has long suggested — the internet is such a wonderful metaphor for how the brain works. We all use our grey matter in our own ways, and we all increase its functionality by making and reinforcing connections — building our own webs of knowledge, if you will. By the time we’re through, the core system that provided the framework for the human brain has taken on the unique attributes that make us who we are. The connections that we make walking down the street, going to school, going to work, et.al., become our external network, and are as rich and complex as time and circumstance allow. For those of us fortunate enough to have web access, the network grows exponentially, offering us new opportunities to make new and different connections, much like those of us fortunate enough to be able to travel gain new perspective on cultural differences. That’s life. As a very wise young man once told me, and as the conversation illustrates, it is what you make of it.

  • Chartreuse says:

    i look at computers the same way i look at pianos

    if you are just looking at the keys you might miss the music…

  • Noah Brier says:

    All of these answers are amazing, I don’t even know what to say. I need a little time to chew on some of this stuff and then I will try to pull together some of my thoughts based on what everyone said (with full credit of course).

    Seriously, though, I can’t tell you all how much it means for this to be a place where this level of conversation could happen. When I set out to redesign my site about a year ago I purposely put the comments right alongside the post because I felt like they were equally important. It seems that lately, they’ve become more important than even the post itself. I posed a question and you all thoughtfully and eloquently answered it. I’m more flattered than I could possibly explain.

    Thank you.

  • Mark says:

    Having read the very thoughtful comments people have posted I am quite impressed with another aspect of the Internet which the good people here have illuminated. By virtue of the chaotic (free) nature of the Internet people are able to expand their minds beyond the dualistic mode of “good” vs. “bad”. My grievance with this is that we should have both, a system that is coherent and science based which affords us the ability to research quickly and efficiently (what we do not have now – or at least we have only to a small degree compared with what is possible and in my opinion should have been created), and another separate (or related but alternate) system wherein the artistic mind can intermingle and create the kinds of ideas I found here. I think that both are necessary for our Civilization to truly prosper going into the future. Do I feel the Internet is a blessing? Yes. Do I feel it is a curse? Yes. To me it appears to be both. I am hopeful that we will actually be able to mitigate (and if we are extra wise eliminate) the cursed aspect, and it is to that aspect I have devoted the rather awful rant above. My language may have been a bit harsh on the matter, I admit, but I nevertheless think the critique is valid. I should read less Nietzsche perhaps. In any event, my thanks for those calm minds who have displayed a nice sense of the sublime with their answers.

  • V-+a%S(p#E*rsT=`hE..]gra_Te[ says:

    I think the internet is helping Universal Content Utopia and the Global Democracy Revolution by providing a level playing field for discussions and expressions of thought and belief.

    But look at how many things are polarized online. Left vs. Right, Net Neutrality vs. Net Service Hierarchies, YouTube vs. RIAA, Firefox vs. IE, PC vs. Mac, Windows vs. Linux, etc.

    Computer usage reflects human psychology, which has many dualities, the pitting of A against B against C, and so on.

    And certain things will always be wrong or evil in a black and white way. So I don’t really see the internet, web, or blogosphere bridging as many gaps, as people use technology to deceive, unduly influence, and promote biased opinions.

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  • Andy says:

    This post concerns one of the most significant cultural shifts in history: the re-invention of the concept of authority.

    It’s worth noting that authority AND ambiguity are man-made devices to organise information. It’s only by ‘agreeing’ on what things are that provides stability in a world of overwhelming data. Authority is NOT an absolute – it is only an idea ‘accepted as absolute’ by us.

    But ‘who’ needs to agree? and what is the purpose/function of authority today?

    The sky is only blue because we all say it is. An absolute answer in this sense is merely convenient. But religious conflict has shown us the potential carnage of bigger ideas that are not agreed upon. The ‘we’ that needs to agree on things, however, is a much more complex dynamic than ever before in history.

    The internet has made communities out of people with shared ideas/interests, rather than shared geography. Does it even matter if things are ‘correct’ any more as long as they are understood within their environment/community?

    My dad often uses long convoluted words and scoffs at slang, telling me: Honestly, why don’t people speak correctly any more?
    My answer to him is: Your long words may be in a dictionary somewhere but I have no idea what they mean. The slang you’re hearing might well be an abuse of language, but the people using it understand each other. And what purpose has language beyond communication? Preserving older language merely places nostalgia above usefulness…

    Authority serves to unify a community with an accepted idea. But the size of that community and its members’ access to other communities and other ideas pollutes or maybe even negates the concept.

    When the community is just you – in your own head – then you can just decide X is true. As long as you never interact with another person, then this authority functions perfectly well. Does this make the decision correct? As far as its purpose is concerned – yes, because the idea is without opposition.

    But when the idea must act in the interest of a small group, a nation, the planet, everything changes.

    The moment pandora’s box (the internet) was opened, we tore apart societal structure and the notion of community and absolutism. We are members of a hundred different communities of different sizes and each overlaps with the last. Some are temporary groups; others more lasting.

    So what’s the answer to ‘authority’ and ‘ambuiguity’ now and in the future?

    This blog and all our comments are an example of what the world would look like if we abandoned authority and spent our days philosophising together. Is that an information utopia? I doubt it. Ambiguity is good for the soul of curious people such as ourselves. We can explore and challenge ideas. This is fine in the context of this blog but it can’t extend to all corners of the planet.

    Bigger questions arise:
    What should we teach in school? Should journalists quote from wikipedia? Should religion only be taught after the age of 21? What will the impact be on courtrooms?

    The question around binary to me is irrelevant. It’s like asking how amazing sculptures can be built out of lego blocks. What is interestig though is that technology serves to make our lives easier and more efficient – to empower us. But we underestimated it and its power may challenge the very fundamentals of life, our own simple building blocks to function and co-exist.

  • stephanie gerson says:

    an interesting idea, but i’m not convinced that there’s something inherent to digital technology that enables ambiguity; if anything, digital technology is a symptom of a trajectory that manifests itself on a much larger scale. i call this trajectory “the trajectory of categories,” and i think it applies to the evolution of how we categorize things. it proceeds from binary –> spectrum (ambiguity?) –> typology.

    take hyperlinks for example. search engines currently look for whether or not a site has links (binary: yes or no). but there’s increasing talk of link strength (spectrum: weaker stronger). and a semantic web would require search engines to understand the type of link between pages (typology: different types). this same trajectory could be applied to social ties, virtual worlds, even information.

    i think. or so i thought. because this old post of yours reminded me of an old post of mine, in which i fleshed all of this out!

    anyways, point being: i don’t necessarily think ambiguity is a property of digital technology. (and even if it were, there wouldn’t necessarily be a contradiction in that its underlying code is binary – think quantum mechanics and newtonian physics, or the simple systems principle of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.) i think that ambiguity is a phase our understanding goes through: perhaps we initially went through a binary period with digital technology, perhaps we are going through a spectral/ambiguous one; but i do think we’re entering more of a typological one.

    and ultimately, even though right/wrong and good/bad feel immature right now, all these different ways of categorizing will prove useful. they add diversity to the portfolio.

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