All about that binary transmission…


Binaries are fundamental to our understanding of the world and our lives. Night and day. Alive and dead. Love and hate. Close and far. Of course we soon realize there’s nuance to these supposed oppositions – that they’re not as simple as they seem. They’re inevitably on some sort of common spectrum – time, state of a living organism, emotion, physical (or metaphorical) distance. Distinguishing between these seemingly complete, holistic states is useful for our understanding. It can be especially useful when we need to decide whether to take action or not (eg. fight/run, buy/sell).

The readings this week gave me new insight into why these oppositions are so useful – especially Hillis’s description of how important restoring logic is for designing a consistently functional system. He writes “…the implementation technology must produce perfect outputs from imperfect inputs, nipping small errors in the bud.” His description of the hydraulic computer also clarified for me the famous Bateman quote, “a difference that makes a difference.” These differences are what create meaning and are a fundamental part of how we comprehend our existence. In order for them to accomplish that, they must be definitive – on or off, right or left, or we can’t perceive them.

The main thing the Code Academy exercises demonstrated for me (and I admit I didn’t finish the tutorial) was what I believe Wing is referring to when she talks about layers of abstraction. The various tools for analyzing (eg. length) and manipulating (eg. uppercase) different types of input offer insight into how these different inputs relate to one another and to the broader system. This also relates (I think?) to the distinction between meaning and doing made by George Dyson in the description of the von Neumann project in Dr. Irvine’s introduction.

This is similar to the way our minds are capable of storing different dimensions of information – we can understand the function of an object, its size, and its color and keep those classes of information clear so that if we encountered a different object of the same function but a different size and color, we could tell that the difference was in those categories. Similarly, with these broader categories of binaries, we examine the difference to understand something new, but we are aware, at least on some level, of the fact that other aspects of what we’re comparing (eg. hair, skin, and diapers in the case of the babies above) are the same.

Dr. Irvine writes in his introduction, “Human cognition is both massively parallel and has many simultaneous states, many not even at the threshold of awareness.” Binaries help us make sense of our world by allowing us to hold all these different states at once, but they also fit into an organizing, dare I say unifying structure. The lightbulb can be on or off, but either way it is a lightbulb.

I found myself thinking a lot as I was reading this week about the binary of analog and digital. Humans are capable of perceiving both nuance and distinction. Evans (p. 11) suggests this complexity when he writes about how color translates to computing: “There are arguably infinitely many different colors, corresponding to different wavelengths of visible light. Since the colors are continuous and not discrete, there is no way to map each color to a unique, finite bit sequence. On the other hand, the human eye and brain have limits. We cannot actually perceive infinitely many different colors; at some point the wavelengths are close enough that we cannot distinguish them. Ability to distinguish colors varies, but most humans can perceive only a few million different colors.”

I wonder if a connection can be made between this digital/analog binary and Debray’s concept of transmission/communication. Debray writes about passing information through time, in effect representing a difference in a sustainable way. Communication may be anything we perceive, so that the sound of the wind in the grass may mean one thing to me and another to you. But if I want to capture something about what the wind in the grass meant to me, I’ll have to make some decisions about how to represent it so others can perceive something similar. Can we think of the transmission as the message we want to encode and must therefore render definitively rather than leaving it up to interpretation?

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About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for Bedsider.org, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.