Lance Morrow, one of the wise men of journalism and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, correctly notes that Americans are in a bad mood.
“They have good reason,” he wrote recently. “They are divided. But for much of its career, the country has been two nations. Binaries are the real American way: North and South, slaveholder and abolitionist, frontier and Ellis Island, East and West, urban and rural, labor and management, strikers and Pinkerton, gold and silver, wet and dry, hawk and dove, black and white, Indian and paleface, Trump and woke.”
He forgot another big hairy binary: Republican and Democrat, a political dichotomy still holding us in its death grip (I declared as Independent years ago; I don’t care what your party is, just tell me your ideas).
I used to write speeches about energy policy that always referenced the genius of the “and” over the tyranny of the “or” (in energy-speak, that alluded to a future encompassing many different sources of energy instead of a false choice between fossil fuels and renewables). Judging by the apparent direction of U.S. energy policy at the moment, my efforts (and those of like-minded colleagues) had even less effect than a mosquito trying to pierce an elephant’s hide.
Here’s the question: in a country as dynamic, complex and innovative as ours, why are we stuck in a binary mode? It’s the 21st Century for god’s sake — aren’t we supposed to be smarter than that? I think we’re being held back by two powerful forces — evolution and culture. And as a good friend likes to point out, you can’t separate culture from evolution — they are mutually reinforcing.
Much of our evolution is rooted in binary thinking. Either we hunt or we starve. Either I kill my enemy or he kills me. Either we procreate or we disappear. This is genetic code and no matter how sophisticated and evolved we think we’ve become, you cannot escape genetic code easily. It’s also rooted in culture. As our social existence becomes more complex, we often resort to simplistic responses to cope, including the Uber-binary social posture of our time — I’m right, you’re wrong.
I’m going out on a limb here — and do so using a fancy, 50-cent word — by saying that we’ve reached the apotheosis of binary culture. We’re at peak binary. The transition away from it won’t be quick. It will likely take decades. But it will happen. It’s being driven by three big levers.
Demographics. The rise of nationalism is a last-gasp spasm of binary thinking — us versus them. It’s a defensive reaction prompted by the dissolution of borders, the intermingling of markets and people and, most important, the power of communications (social media in particular) to dissolve barriers between different cultures. I guard against being overly utopian, but eventually we will overcome this irrational fear of “the other” and realize that we all want the same things: security, happiness and prosperity. That will open up entirely new frames-of-reference for decision-making.
Technology. The story of technology in the 21st Century isn’t how fast the Internet can get or how many cameras are on your iPhone. It’s quantum computing. The single biggest driver of our way of life was the Industrial Revolution, which was enabled by the new technology of steam power. Quantum computing will have the same existential impact on our way of life over the next century or two. The foundation of quantum computing essentially captures the genius of the “and” over the tyranny of the “or.” I’ll let some genius at Microsoft explain it:
Imagine that you are exercising in your living room. You turn all the way to your left and then all the way to your right. Now turn to your left and your right at the same time. You can’t do it (not without splitting yourself in two, at least). Obviously, you can’t be in both of those states at once – you can’t be facing left and facing right at the same time.
However, if you are a quantum particle, then you can have a certain probability of facing left AND a certain probability of facing right due to a phenomenon known as superposition (also known as coherence).
A quantum particle such as an electron has its own “facing left or facing right” properties, for example spin, referred to as either up or down, or to make it more relatable to classical binary computing, let’s just say 1 or 0. When a quantum particle is in a superposition state, it’s a linear combination of an infinite number of states between 1 and 0.
Quantum computing will increase the scope and scale of our technological capabilities by many orders of magnitude. In a quantum future, binary-based decision making will seem as quaint as a horse and buggy.
Culture: Artists often see the future far ahead of the rest of us, who have to tend to more important things like earning a living and golfing. For example, early in the 20th Century, artists like Picasso created a style called cubism that seemed to leapfrog binary perception and jump straight into a quantum reality, where there are an infinite number of states between 1 and 0.
But let’s cut to the chase. There’s a band called Phish (we all knew it would end up here, right?) that has perfected a non-binary form of composition best described as “yes, and.” Phish is a famously improvisational band that has been playing for more than 35 years because they’ve devised a formula that allows them to continually replenish their creative resources. When playing with each other in real time, they’re able to extend a composition by having musical conversations that build on listening to each other (“yes, I hear that”), then answering back (“and here’s what I think about it”). If you have a spare 37 minutes, listen to this version of “Tweezer” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s quite different than the anthem of binary culture, the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”
I’m being slightly discursive in this post — I apologize for that. Maybe I’ll just chalk it up to non-binary thinking. I guess the takeaway is that inflection points — in this case, the shift from binary to “quantum” thinking — often come with a measure of discomfort, or even pain. Thus, Lance Morrow’s diagnosis of America’s “bad mood.” But as the ubiquitous poster in the dentist’s office or the gym observes, there’s gain on the other side of the pain. So let’s get on with it!