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Between 0 and 1

I hate binary numbers. I mean it. On or off, for or against, cake or pie, but never both. No negotiation. And get that tone out of your voice.

0 and 1 feel equally empty to me.

Indeed, the very idea of binary numbers seems contrary to the principles of a liberal education. Which value, for example, do we assign to a carefully shaded meaning? How do we distill binary essence from the subtle colors that ripen in a half-lit forest? Who backs the expedition that is destined for an inaccessible pole? Truth, it seems, travels along the continuous, infinitely structured pathways that lie between 0 and 1. Off limits in a world of thumbs up, thumbs down.

And yet, there they are, running every computer on every desktop across campus. On and off, on and off, again and again. There is something pernicious about this. Frightening, even. Every computer file, irrespective of its author's aspirations, reduced, ultimately, to a flurry of switches opening and closing deep within some Central Processor. How can this be? How can the complexity of human experience and imagination be accurately represented, or even approximated, by mere megabytes of static?

We stare, bleary-eyed, into the RGB phosphors that shift across our computer screens like blowing sands, and we imagine that we see patterns, greater truths. We pour our very lives into the optical fibers that connect us to cyberspace. We go to sleep with our neurons firing and contracting: 001011100100010101... . Great dreams of who we have become.

I sometimes stare at my students, as well, wondering if they are channel surfing in and out of class. When we use calculators and computers—and we do, every day—I watch their lips move and twist around the digitized displays of technological Esperanto. I tell myself: This looks like thinking. Still, I cannot help but wonder what is actually being transmitted. What sort of conversation are they having with the machine? Do they go home at night and sort through the bits? Today's lesson: six 0s, two 1s.

I also find myself staring at colleagues. It is hard not to marvel at the naturalness with which some of them will assume a wrestling stance on one side or the other of a complex issue. The delicate instruments of rational discussion are carelessly discarded, and the heavy artillery of Holy War is rolled into place. Mac or PC. Classroom technology or not. Let's go! I become mute at such provocations, uncomprehending. I fear that my blank eyes are interpreted as 00: submission, capitulation.

On the playground I used to say: I don't want to fight; let's meet in-between. Such meetings were rarely arranged, and if they were it was often with a solid 1 to my stomach. Welcome to the two-digit world, four eyes! I've learned to keep my guard up since then, aware that the world is more likely to shout out hot binary digits than it is to whisper along a cool, irrational breeze.

The flood of binary arithmetic washes us forward. Progress is reported. Communities form on the WorldWide Web, economies of formless services buzz across the data networks, and individuals find satisfying digital expression of their innermost selves. The continuous and multiform take shape every day across the sea of bits. Could it be that intellectual discourse is, after all, nothing more than polarized debate, repeated recursively into dazzling complexity? Or that we are, all of us, just biological white noise with certain pretensions?

There was a romance in the dim sessions that I spent with my slide rule. Perhaps it was nothing more.

I consider my options. I've done 0, many years ago, when the doctor first slapped me on the behind. And the alternative? 1? Admit that the switch of my self has been closed, and that the only thing left to me is so much walking among the dead? I look for solace in mathematics, where we learn the multitudinous forms of nothingness: 0, 1 + (-1), sin(π), (d/dx)(3), ζ(-2). Why not, then, 000000000000000000... , accumulating each day, one hesitant digit at a time? Born again and again. Each cell pushing back a tiny circle in the darkness, in which we may nurture a guttering vision of the elusive in-between.