The Unintended Consequences of Binary Thinking

I was an early adopter. I know, hard to believe, but true. I bought my first computer in the mid-1980’s, a 286 with ten MB of memory. The computer guy, because everybody who bought a computer used a computer guy back then, told me I would never use up that much memory.

The 286 replaced a word processor, which in turn replaced my beloved IBM Selectric III. It was a miracle to see what I was writing before it permanently hit the 20 lb. Esquire Bond. The trauma of carbon paper typos was over.

At Prospect Magazine, Terry Eagleton proudly announces that he is about to become the last EMV, email virgin.

I shall soon be the only EMV (email virgin) left in the country. I have never sent an email, though I’ve occasionally cheated and asked my teenage son to do so for me. Nor have I ever used the internet. I am no more capable of going online than I am of getting to Saturn. I don’t know how to text. I do have a mobile phone, but it’s immobile. I never take it out of the house, for fear of triggering some ridiculous trend in which hordes of people march down the street bawling into these sinister little gadgets.

I refused to carry around a beeper in the 80’s, despite a number of clients offering to get me one and some, well, demanding that I have one, I was not going to be “beeped.” Not by anyone. I would not be beepable. I did, however have a cellular phone, a big ol’ Motorola that cost $12 a minute for airtime. I only turned it on when I needed to make a call. I continued to have a cellphone until last summer, when I got a smartphone. I still only turn it on when I need to make a call. People insist on me giving them my cellphone number. I say “no.”

In my view, the internet is really an anti-modern device for slowing us all down, returning us to the rhythms of an earlier, more sedate civilisation.  In the frantic, fast-moving years before Apple and Google, you would ask for a hotel room and the clerk would just write your name down in a book. It was all over in 20 seconds. These days you ask for a room and the receptionist starts to type a chapter of his novel. Once he has inserted one or two rather elaborate subplots and added a few complex new characters, he remembers what he is supposed to be doing and hands you your room key.

Few people give it a second thought when checking in that the room clerk must take ten minutes to fill in all the blanks to satisfy the computer. People understand forms. People understand computers. There are blanks with little red asterisks, and that means the computer demands input. You can’t argue with the computer and it makes no sense to try. Nor is there anything to be gained by beating up the clerk, as he’s just doing as the computer demands.

No one wonders anymore why the computer makes so many demands on us. Sure, some programmer somewhere decided it would be a good idea to get some seemingly irrelevant bit of information so that business could sell it to someone else as an alternate revenue stream, but the programmer isn’t there to argue with. We used to sigh and make a point to the clerk that we didn’t appreciate the needless loss of ten minutes of our lives to some geek kid’s vision of what information we were required to provide. Today, we just stand there and wait, like good little consumers.

We have been trained to be binary. We answer questions because they are asked, not because the information is needed. We wait for people to tap away because we know that they must or the computer won’t spit out whatever end product we are waiting for. There is no fuzziness, no wiggle-room. It’s yes or no, fill in the blanks and be done or argue and get nowhere.

In the early days of computers, when Gopher was cool and the world wide web was a vast wasteland, you needed to know DOS to make the green lights appear. Then Windows came along and anybody could point and click. It was then that I came to realize that they owned us, as everybody would soon be oohing at the colors and clicking at the magical content, and doing whatever they had to do to make it work.

Maybe Terry Eagleton is a bit extreme in his refusal to embrace the magic, but then, he is also not a slave to binary demands.

Nowadays, however, protest is most definitely what my email virginity has become. I am living proof that all this frenetic, mostly vacuous, communication is quite superfluous. We all survived without it before it started, and I personally have survived without it ever since. If people really want to contact me, they write. If they can’t be bothered, or have forgotten how to do it, or imagine that writing disappeared with Norman Wisdom and drainpipe trousers, that’s their problem. Besides, email is surely just a passing fad. My own prediction is that it will be over by next Christmas and everyone will then revert to my own state of technological chastity.

It won’t be over. The genie isn’t going anywhere near the bottle, no less in it. But do you look at wires and wonder, “what are these things?” What about your kids? Do you jump when your smartphone makes a noise? Do you provide your most personal information because some pimply-faced kid at a computer asks you to? Do you sit on hold for seven minutes while a disembodied voice from Bangalore apologizes for the inconvenience of his slowish computer?

More importantly, when you decide not to be a compliant member of the digital nation, do others simply turn their back and walk away, because you are fighting shadows of the past and they can’t be bothered discussing the point with you? Of course not, because you’ve never been a noncompliant member of the digital nation. You love the binary gods too much to anger them by ever asking why.

10 comments on “The Unintended Consequences of Binary Thinking

  1. John Burgess

    So, he picks up a technology that’s dying? Kids in their 20s don’t use email, won’t use email. They don’t use voice mail, either. If it can’t be contained within a text message, it’s not concise enough. Even the young writers, who use words to make a living won’t use email unless they’re forced to do so by circumstance or publisher.

    1. SHG Post author

      Funny you should say that. The other day, I was “chastised” for including a twit in a post. I was informed that the twit wasn’t for public consumption, but personal to me. I responded that it was a public twit, not a private twit. She replied that she was forced to publicly twit at me because I didn’t follow her, and it was my fault that she was forced to twit publicly, but it didn’t change her intention that it be private.

      Email, I asked? Wouldn’t that have been private and readily available to you?

      Too much effort, I was told. And that’s why I was wrong and she was right.

  2. Rick Horowitz

    You’re absolutely right about what this has done to us.

    The other day, I took a photograph I’d had printed at 16×25 to be framed. The owner of the shop pulled out his laptop computer, on which I could see computer program was running which had a rather large number of boxes for entering data to generate an invoice and work order.

    As I watched him NOT fill it out completely, I found myself momentarily horrified. He was leaving almost every box blank.

    The form he ultimately printed contained just the barest of information concerning what I had bought, and none of my personal information — not even my name.

    I actually thought about my reaction for quite awhile after leaving the shop. I won’t stand longer than 45 seconds at a counter in a convenience store, or “fast” food restaurant, if there aren’t enough clerks. I will abandon a grocery cart — only taking out perishables to return to their proper place before leaving — if the grocery store has long lines and not enough cashiers when I get to the front.

    But there I was, horrified, that the blanks weren’t being filled in on the computer screen.

    BTW, “horrified” is really the right word for the feeling. It almost immediately passed. But the reason I spent so much time thinking about it afterward was that it surprised me how strong the feeling was.

    1. SHG Post author

      Amazing how visceral it is, as if the computer overlord will be angry and reject you for not satisfying its needs.

  3. Marilou Auer

    There’s a lawyer here in town, probably in his 50s, who has neither a cell phone, a pager, a computer, an e-mail account, or even a fax machine. I am not making this up. He was my ex-husband’s first lawyer and is a very nice guy, but he chooses not to embrace all the modern stuff. He does have an answering machine.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sounds a bit absurd to avoid what are now ordinary conveniences, but just because one has them doesn’t mean one has to become a slave to them.

      1. Ken Bellone

        That’s the key phase: slave. Since selling my home, massively downsizing and literally throwing away or donating well over half my possessions, I’ve realized I’ve gone a month without a TV or DVD player. That its taken a month to notice tells me enough. I didn’t really need it. Will I buy one,? Of course, but it’ll sit idle and take up a lot less of the life I have left.

        Still the only one in the family who has avoided the smartphone, and yes, I get pissed off when answering some inane question supersedes an otherwise nice family conversation.

        The Internet? Well, I guess it’s my vice, my small concession to modern conveniences. I do limit it, though, to a few sites I enjoy reading and find I may learn something from, so in a way I suppose I’m saying thank you, not that you need my thanks, but it’s there.

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