Spend some time on social media, reading or watching the news and you’ll likely find most things reduced to a bullet point, a Top 10 list or otherwise boiled-down nugget of proffered wisdom.
Is it that people no longer care to the think for themselves, or that they’re simply too inundated with the opinions and proof from everyone else that they mistake the consumption of said information for thinking?
We humans created machines to do repetitive, tedious, time-consuming tasks so that we could apply our brains elsewhere. And yet, doesn’t it seem as though we’re becoming more like the machines than liberated, sophisticated refined beings? Machines require a special language, binary in nature, reducing to combinations of zeros and ones. But people can handle romance, where romance is defined as “something that lacks basis in fact” and fact is defined as “a thing that is indisputably the case”. How many facts are there, really? I’m 37 years old (where a year is defined as 365 days except in a leap year of 366). I’m of the female sex. My dog is black (according to the cones and rods in my retinas and related circuitry in my brain). I like to think of romance as complex, something that can’t be measured or proven definitively. Society seems to have a fixation with proof, wanting to know the answer, the truth, as though such things exist. The problem with proof is that it requires simplification and assumptions, all which are value-laden and relative; proof is a proxy for thinking.
Michael Pollen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma wrote about soil fertility and a farmer’s perspective of its complexity compared to Big Agra’s oversimplification of and reliance on fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to grow crops. His words (below) are relevant to the theme of complexity versus binary thinking as they portray the importance of the complex and limitations of the binary, which can be applied to just about any topic meriting discussion.
“Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As [the farmer] was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.”
Science is often bastardized in today’s society in an effort to make a point or serve a political interest, when in fact, science as a course of study is anything but binary. A true scientist is one who devotes their career to exploring a subject and its body of literature, contributing to it, inquiring, collaborating with one’s peers, etc. In today’s society the fruits of science are often used to silence the opposition when the real root of science is inquiry, which leads to research to build on a long history of complex subject matter. A person who throws out a data point as a means of oppressing one’s opponent should always be questioned. Science never shuns the questioner, science has nothing to fear, because there is no end to science, not in any topic or of any subject matter. There is always more to explore, research, clarify, understand, apply, redefine, and so forth.
I invested a lot of time thinking about adults when I was a kid, the way they were responsible and knew what was right and how to do it. I couldn’t comprehend why my parents didn’t seem to fulfill my expectations of other adults.
One evening when I was nineteen and waiting tables at a country club during my freshman year of college, I experienced a pivotal moment, the kind that left me unhinged and reeling. The menu was pricy; the people who dined at Seasons At Hilltop those Friday evenings (the only night it was open to the public as it was otherwise a banquet facility) were successful, they had money. They were responsible and did the right things, according to my then-binary thinking.
A man sat at a four-top with his wife and two children, and upon receiving his meal, berated me for the preparation of his steak. I assured him I would resolve the matter, but that didn’t resolve his anger. He continued going off on me. I remembered wanting to say, “Do you think I cooked the steak? Don’t you know anything about how restaurants work?” Instead I offered him a complimentary dessert. When that didn’t satisfy him, I sort of checked out, lost amidst the thoughts drowning my brain, things like, “Wow, this guy’s an asshole—how can he behave this way in front of his kids? What is he teaching them by acting this way?” and “We’re fucked. The universe is fucked. There are these morons—everywhere—cloaked as adults, and…holy shit…we’re so fucked!”
My little theory (which was really a philosophy premised in security) that real adults behaved as they should had just been blown out of the water.
Ultimately I went to my manager and let her handle the irate (so-called) man, as reason and sensibility were lost on him and that’s all I was armed with (a common theme in my life for years to come). Sure, the epiphany stuck with me, but it took a long time for me to synthesize it and develop skills beyond what I knew (reason and sensibility).
I think back to that scenario from time-to-time. Most recently it was because I just sort of realized I’m almost forty. By almost I mean closer to forty than thirty. That means I’m one of those adults I perceived as a child and young adult. I’m supposed to know All The Things and do them right, all the time, according to my nineteen-year-old self. But I don’t. I can’t even know what’s right most times, and right isn’t really worth aiming for in many cases anyway. Implicit in right is definitive, black-and-white. Yet shades of gray are more prevalent. As I move through life, sometimes gracefully, most times awkwardly, I’m constantly reminded that everything is related, dynamic, iterative, and not at all definitive.
My thirty-seven-year-old self focuses more on being consistent with my values. On being authentic and honest. I’m patient instead of hasty in the face of the unknown. I have more questions than answers. I’m willing to be vulnerable where previously I might have felt embarrassed. I want to be someone who matters. Mostly I want to be a person my children do and can respect as they evolve into their adult selves. I make mistakes all the time. I apologize to my kids. I ask for do-overs when frustration gets the best of me. That’s my I’m-almost-forty definition of being a real adult. It’s far more romantic (and messy) than binary. My nineteen-year-old self would think it irrational and stupid. How naïve would I be to mistaken wisdom and an appreciation of life’s complexity for simplistic idiocy? As for my thirty-seven-year-old self, romance trumps machine language.