The dangers of binary arguments in a complex and relative digital world

In his 1983 book, Modern times: a history of the world from the 1920s to the year 2000, historian Paul Johnson claims the modern world started on 29 May 1919, when astronomers studying a solar eclipse were the first to test and prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. As a result, writes Johnson, “The belief began to circulate… that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value”.

A century of breaking down social, intellectual and scientific absolutes later, we label this battle between binary opposites and relative values by using phrases such as “culture war”. Arguably, the biggest social and cultural influence in the world today is an industry built entirely around binary logic that is being used as a tool to globalise those culture wars and increasingly to try to divide society into two extremes. It’s as if those “culture warriors” are trying to remake the absolute world, by using the digital revolution to divide relative values back into two opposites.

Those of us in the technology community, therefore, sit in the midst of a conflict between our binary heritage and a relativistic world we partly helped to create. As such, we have a responsibility to avoid letting the increasingly complex discussions about the impact of the digital revolution become one of comparing extremes. Our binary underpinning has shown, through the huge diversity of the way technology is used, that this is a world composed of shades of grey, not simply of black and white.

We see examples of this every day. “Is social media a good thing or a bad thing?” scream the headlines. It’s the same with artificial intelligence, with big data, with the impact of mobile phones on children. In Einstein’s shadow, technology has enabled almost infinite nuance, yet it is so often reduced to existing on opposing ends of what is in reality a spectrum.

One of the latest examples is around the use of our personal medical records by the NHS. We’re facing another poorly communicated “data grab” – a repeat of the 2014/15 Care.data fiasco. Should we opt in or opt out of our health data being gathered? Note – only two choices offered. But surely you want better health research and to save lives? Well, yes of course. But…

The beauty of modern technology is the way it makes the most complex things, simple. But we must avoid making complex arguments about the role of technology, overtly simple. The binary world bears an enormous responsibility when it comes to sustaining the theories of relativity.

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