Binary man


We live in a complex world where there are only two choices for everything.

OK, that’s not technically true. But we view a lot of things in life in a binary way -- on or off, yes or no, true or false, up or down, in or out, good or evil, win or lose, black or white, heads or tails, life or death, positive or negative, yin and yang, male and female, forward and reverse, matter and antimatter, agony and ecstasy. 

Many of these are also exact opposites. That is, if one is true, the other cannot be true (Spock logic).

Humans simplify decisions by reducing them to two options. Catherine and I were deciding on a style for a new front door. We started with nine options and eventually got it down to two, making the final decision easier. Humans probably evolved to reduce choices to two because we have a hard time analyzing a lot of options at once.

The binary bother

In its simplest form, a binary decision would be to perform an action or not perform an action. We must be wired for binary decisions because we make them constantly. Maybe the two hemispheres of our brains discuss it and come to a decision. OK, maybe not quite that way.

Yet we also know it is possible that an option might be somewhere in between two choices. An Independent senator is usually viewed as someone in between Republican and Democrat, allowing them to ping-pong between voting with one side or the other. We now even have a label for people who identify as neither male nor female – non-binary. Maybe like the Saturday Night Live character “Pat” who looked and sounded like someone who could be male or female.

Computers work in binary. They make decisions based on a switch being “on” or “off.” They can analyze the states of billions of microscopic switches very quickly, leading to final decisions humans just can’t do. Computer logic is based on the binary number system. Remember that week of studying binary numbers in grade school? I hated it. I thought, what’s the point of this when we have a perfectly good system based on 10 fingers? Even Roman numerals were easier to understand.

Binary is a base-2 system (just two digits -- zero and one). Decimal is base-10 (10 digits, 0-9). So 10 in base-2 equals two in base-10. There’s a computer nerd joke about this: “There are 10 types of people in the world. Those that understand binary and those that don’t.”

Randy Johnson, Between the Bluffs

Randy Johnson

As much as I despised binary in grade school, my career in the computer industry forced me to learn how to work with it. However, I’m not pushing the binary number system here. I would hate to have to use binary to write numbers. Imagine having to write the number 53 (decimal) as 110101 (binary).

What I’m getting at is that we choose between two things a lot. Politicians seem to always need to either raise taxes or lower them. But they could also just leave them as they are. Doing nothing is always an option. We might be fine with that. But then politicians would worry that it looks like they aren’t doing anything.

You’ll likely wear yourself out on social media in a binary argument. Your ideas will always be countered so neither side will ever win. The internet provides too many easy, faceless ways to argue. Hopefully, our posterity will grow beyond this. Or not.

A matter of choice?

Product marketing presents us with binary choices all the time. Coke or Pepsi? Save for retirement or go on a cruise? Buy a house or rent? Advertisers present us with pro vs. con scenarios when there are likely other options.

Most large stores today provide a binary choice for many items. That would be the more expensive name brand such as Kellogg’s or the lower-priced store brand such as Our Family. Any more options would just take up limited shelf space. Plus, humans don’t want to think very hard. So it’s a win-win.

You could buy Prevagen or not. The manufacturer presents you with the binary option of

buying Prevagen to improve your memory or, by implication, not buying it and thus not improving your memory. 

Well, who doesn’t need memory improvement? I wonder how many Prevagen users stopped using it because they forgot to buy more when it ran out.

All of this may or may not be true. You decide.

Randy Johnson is a Red Wing native and graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

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