Oh, my binary heart

David Weinberger’s most recent JOHO post shows us some thinking he’s doing about the history (and nature) of “information” as a concept.

The whole thing is great reading, so go and read it.

Some of it explores a point that I touched on in my presentation for IDEA earlier this month: that computers are very literal machines that take the organic, nuanced ambiguities of our lived experience and (by necessity) chop it up into binary “is or is not” data.

Bits have this symbolic quality because, while the universe is made of differences, those differences are not abstract. They are differences in a taste, or a smell, or an extent, or a color, or some property that only registers on a billion dollar piece of equipment. The world’s differences are exactly not abstract: Green, not red. Five kilograms, not ten. There are no differences that are only differences.

The example I gave at IDEA was how on Facebook, you have about six choices to describe the current romantic relationship you’re in: something that normally is described to others through contextual cues (a ring on your finger, the tone of voice and phrasing you use when mentioning the significant other in conversation, how you treat other people of your sig-other’s gender, etc). These cues give us incredibly rich textures for understanding the contours of another person’s romantic life; but Facebook (again, out of necessity) has to limit your choices to a handful of terms in a drop-down menu — terms that the system renders as mutually exclusive, by the fact that you can only select one.

More and more of the substance of our lives is being housed, communicated & experienced (by ourselves and others) in the Network. And the Network is made of computers that render everything into binary choices. Granted, we’re making things more fine-grained in many systems, and giving people a chance to add more context, but that can only go so far.

Weinberger uses photography as an example:

We turn a visual scene into bits in our camera because we care about the visual differences at that moment, for some human motive. We bit-ify the scene by attending to one set of differences — visible differences — because of some personal motivation. The bits that we capture depend entirely on what level of precision we care about, which we can adjust on a camera by setting the resolution. To do the bit-ifying abstraction, we need analog equipment that stores the bits in a particular and very real medium. Bits are a construction, an abstraction, a tool, in a way that, say, atoms are not. They exist because they stand for something that is not made of bits.

All this speaks to the implications of Simulation, something I’m obsessing about lately as it relates especially to Context. (And which I won’t go into here… not another tangent!)

Dave’s example reminds me of something I remember Neil Young complaining about years ago (in Guitar Player magazine) in terms of what we lose when we put music into a digital medium. He likened it to looking out a screen door at the richly contoured world outside — but each tiny square in screen turn what is seen through its confines into an estimated average “pixel” of visible information. In all that averaging, something vital is inevitably lost. (I couldn’t find the magazine interview, but I did find him saying something similar in the New York Times in 1997: “When you do an analog recording, and you take it to digital, you lose everything. You turn a universe of sounds into an average. The music becomes more abrupt and more agitating, and all of the subtleties are gone.”)

Of course, since that interview (probably 15 years ago) digital music has become much more advanced — reconstructing incredibly dense, high-resolution information about an analog original. Is that the answer, for the same thing that’s happening to our analog lives as they’re gradually soaked up by the great digital Network sponge? Higher and higher resolution until it’s almost real? Maybe. But in every case where we’re supposed to decide on an input to that system (such as which label describes our relationship), we’re being asked to turn something ineffable into language — not only our own, expressively ambiguous language, but the predefined language of a binary system.

Given that many of our lives are increasingly experienced and mediated via the digital layer, the question arises: to what degree will it change the way we think about identity, humanity, even love?