Thinking In Binary: Recently at Reddit

This conversation (below) along with a parallel comment on another thread caused me to dig up a Douglas Rushkoff quote that keeps coming back to me:

“The digital realm is biased toward choice, because everything must be expressed in the terms of a discreet, yes-or-no, symbolic language. This, in turn, often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere. We must come to recognize the increased number of choices in our lives as largely a side-effect of the digital; we always have the choice of making no choice at all.”

And this was exactly the invitation extended in the post being discussed below: to make no choice at all; to respond with neither a yes or a no, but to entertain the premise it described.

We have largely lost this art of entertaining ideas. The only correction I would suggest to Rushkoff’s observation is that the “discreet, yes-or-no, symbolic language” of blacks and whites and ups and downs, the 0’s and 1’s that underlie the entire vocabulary of our digital realm, is one that’s been in development at least since Descartes and ye olde body-mind dualism. The “binary” of computer programming languages was thus arguably a cultural choice forced on early programmers whose “analog sphere” had been trending binary for generations.

And never mind autism during the Enlightenment; when we look at contemporary autism through these binary, either/or lenses, we get exactly the goofy, paradoxical absurdity described so well earlier today by Neuroskeptic, in Mountains of Mental Disorders.

It’s not just the digital realm described by Rushkoff that’s “biased toward choice.” And it’s not a bias, in any realm, that favors autistics, or — as Neuroskeptic seems to make clear — those who would understand autism.


Were autistics, as atheists and agnostics, the engine that drove the European Enlightenment?

Redditor 1: No, smart people did.

Redditor 2: The guy is autistic and is trying to claim the enlightenment for his own. The Enlightenment figures were hardly autistic. Many owned political positions or sought them out and were socialites even if they were only socialites among other intellectuals.

Redditor 3: this, EXACTLY

Author: Ableist much, guys?

Redditor 4: Ah, yes. Nobody agrees with you and so we must be discriminating.

Author: Disagreeing about the Enlightenment is legit. Implying that autistics cannot be smart and capable is ableist.

Redditor 4: I think the main argument is that many of the influential people were socialites and politicians.

One guy did say “no, smart people did”. Hopefully he just means that they were smart, just not autistic.

My little brother is autistic. He is incredibly smart. He does have problems socializing, pretty common for people with autism.

Author: Then you know about autistic obsessions with pattern-finding and with specific subject interests. There ain’t no social joy in the world like that between autistics who share a special interest, and during the Enlightenment we were minting new special interests as fast as we could identify the patterns that wove them together.

I’m also guessing the Enlightenment was not such a socially-oriented, extrovert-driven age as ours is, and that the social environment was friendlier to eccentrics, and not so disabling to autistics as it is today.

Even so, as for politicians today who exhibit an autistic cognitive style, good gawd, look at Australia’s Kevin Rudd, or America’s Al Gore. As for socialites, an autistic cognitive style doesn’t preclude you from getting involved in your community, especially in a way that involves your particular obsession (and especially if you have charitable funds to pave your way). I know autistics who do so, and one in particular who is capable of working a room handshake by handshake like a politician. He can also be a terror to his co-workers, precisely because of this combination of machine-like self-assurance and tunnel vision — but all he lacks to be a socialite or a politician, I’d say, is the ambition and the money.

And no one has said in any case that socialites were not involved in the Enlightenment; I call straw man on that. The influential people of the Enlightenment to my mind though were the scientists, thinkers, and writers. If we’re going to reduce everyone to a narrow, exclusive label, “socialites” may have spread their ideas, but they did not originate them.

Redditor 4: I could see that. But to say that the entire enlightenment was driven by autism is kind of a big leap without proof, considering Autism wasn’t officially recognized until around the 1940s and any speculation about people before that is based on reported behaviors rather than any actual clinical observation.

Autism is considered a mental disorder. You cannot say that everyone that is eccentric or creative has autism. That creates a problem for people that are actually impacted by it. This article highlights alot of the problems with diagnosing autism/asperger’s today.

Author: Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder not so long ago, and still is in some quarters. Shift Journal is all about the big leaps; go back and read the first month or so. No one sails to new lands without consenting to lose sight of the familiar coastline.

As for your article, while I’m all for everyone who needs accommodations getting them, I’m all about less diagnosis and more recognition of the autistic cognitive style as an everyday, everywhere, under-the-radar, been-here-all-along daily companion.

edited to add: When accommodations for autistics are freely provided as a routine matter of common understanding, shared culture, and simple human decency — rather than compelled only in individual cases by a note from a licensed physician — then the famous “problems with diagnosing autism/asperger’s” simply evaporate. And along with them a good bit of the DSM’s carefully defined “impairments.”

Redditor 4: The only impact homosexuality has on the lives of homosexuals is from discrimination and possibly hemorrhoids.

I’m open to the idea that many of the thinker’s were autistic or had autistic tendencies. There needs to be more proof though before you can assert that.

In Autism and creativity: is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability? Michael Fitzgerald posits that Hitler may have been autistic. Andreas Fries wrote an article suggesting the same thing. It’s all just speculation though.

Author: Not following your lead sentence, and am not sure I need or want to.

And again, straw man: I’m provoking you to consider a possibility. Apparently I’ve done so so effectively that you’re chiding me (and Fitzgerald and Fries?) for having asserted it as fact. :-)

Redditor 4: I’m saying that to diagnosis someone with autism the person needs to exhibit at least six symptoms of impairment (at least two in social impairment, at least one in communication impairment and at least one in repetitive behavior). There were many reasons homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder and none of it had to do with impairment.

I’m not chiding you, I’m just pointing out that without proper evidence (which apparently you don’t need because you’re only trying to open my mind) anyone can make assumptions about mental disorders in history. You can say that the enlightenment may have been caused by autism and others can say that the holocaust may have been caused by autism.

Author: I get your first point now but I think among the religious right you can still find the social construct of homosexuality as an impairment. Your reading of the DSM requirements is correct (though oddly subject to correction, once again, with the next edition). My point is that autistic impairment is in significant part a social construct; your citation of the DSM seems not to recognize this.

Yes. I thought you were trying to get me to back off with the Hitler example. Look, it’s a free marketplace. You can say whatever you want. Me, I don’t think there’s any call for us all to shut the f*** up until the historians and neuroscientists are all equipped for time travel. I do think it’s a lot more simplistic, a lot more reliant on the “Great Man” theory of history, to suggest that autism caused the holocaust (what, no props for scapegoating, psychopathy, and denial?), but go ahead. I’ll be right here.

Autism may be somebody else’s sacred cow; it’s not mine.

Also, where’s the rulebook? Didn’t you just automatically lose by invoking Hitler?

Redditor 4: I’ll probably look into it more. I just skimmed the article, but it is an intriguing thought. From what I read though the first part seems to draw conclusions from a premise that doesn’t support that conclusion.

“Autistic people have trouble with belief, during the enlightenment many people questioned belief, therefore many of the great thinkers were autistic.”

Author: Um, how about “Autistic people do fine without belief” sted “have trouble,” k?

And, it’s a premise worth considering, is all I’m sayin’.

Good talk — thanks much.

Redditor 4: I probably worded that wrong. Thanks.

Original thread here.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 10/12/11 in featured, The Unconscious | 10 Comments | Read More

Comments (10)


  1. MJ says:

    “The “binary” of computer programming languages was thus arguably a cultural choice forced on early programmers whose “analog sphere” had been trending binary for generations.”

    That statement qualifies as the most absurd thing I have ever head someone say about either a computer or computer programming.

    I am not trying to be mean or start a fight, but you don’t have the faintest idea of how circuits or computer systems work, do you?

    Binary is not a cultural choice, it is simply a useful approximation that allows more complex circuits to be built more easily. You can do very similar things with raw analog circuits if you know how and are prepared to spend more time building it.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Well, thanks so much for not being mean. eyeroll lol I’m aware that the fact that a circuit can only be open or closed is not a cultural choice, and was not culturally pre-determined. I do think that what Rushkoff points out in Program Or Be Programmed misses the fact that what he calls the digital realm isn’t so much a new thing under the sun, as it only codifies and reinforces cultural biases that have been operative for centuries.

    You’re quite right that one can program in binary in raw analog space; that’s exactly what Descartes, Mersennes, and others were doing. We’re all running those programs, still, even when they produce weird outputs like the one Neuroskeptic describes.

  3. MJ says:

    Actually if you want to be accurate, there is no difference between binary and analog - all circuits are analog. The binary/digital system is a framework built on top of the analog world so something useful can be built.

    And the idea that binary is somehow limited to zero and one would be like saying the convention base 10 number system is limited to 0 to 9. Both number systems allow you to express the number 42.

    The whole digital/binary analogy is rather horrid.

    If you wanted to go anywhere with the analogy, you could say that binary is to analog as the autism spectrum is to being human. Both are subsets of the other and neither exists outside of the other.

    But none of this philosophy about what it means to have autism will give my children the ability to speak or restore their ability to function. Or to put it in terms of Neuroskeptic’s post, those of us who have children who are halfway up the mountain can get quite cranky when the people in the sounding valleys philosophize about what it means to live on the mountain.

  4. peter says:

    that should be discrete
    and even including the change: autistic people do fine without belief, during the enlightenment many people questioned belief, therefore many of the great thinkers were autistic - it’s still a syllogistic fallacy
    you only have to be a rational thinker to question belief, not necessarily autistic
    and finally, digital isn’t only binary, you can have base-10 digital computers

  5. Mark Stairwalt says:

    I’m not here to take responsibility for your crankiness — nor do I get up in the morning and seek out folks who make me cranky.

    While I would love to see digital systems with different bases, I don’t know that would solve the problem at hand, and “binary as limited to 0 and 1” happens to be what we have implemented. Some of your issues here you may want to take up with Rushkoff, not me.

    Peter, if you want to comment again, I’ll see to it that your whole statement appears. In the meantime: I didn’t take issue with the Redditor’s characterization of my argument, but I don’t find that it matches what I presented in the post that was under discussion. I wasn’t arguing backwards; my starting point was that there may have been demographic shifts preceding the Enlightenment that both produced more individuals with an autistic cognitive style, and allowed them to flourish.

    Obviously there’s no proof either way, but you’re welcome to review Andrew Lehman’s work that led to my supposition.

  6. MJ says:

    Hmm, interesting way to edit your response.

    You still seem to miss the point that binary isn’t limited to zero and one any more than base 10 numbers are limited to 0 to 9. One digit doth not a number make.

    A computer (or the digital world) is no more defined by zero or one than a house is defined by the the materials that make up one of the cinder blocks in its foundation.

    As for getting up in the morning to look for cranks, I don’t do that either. You left a link at neuroskeptic in a comment and I followed the link here.

    And normally I just ignore things that I disagree rather than engage in conversations like this, but that bit about binary being a cultural trait or that the “digital realm” being biased towards yes/no because computers are based in a binary number system is so absurd that I couldn’t help but comment.

  7. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Suit yourself. I’ll be the first to admit it’s a messy kitchen when I’m done cooking metaphors — though I know if I complained about my wife’s messy kitchen, she’d tell me I could go eat somewhere else.

    Speaking of, I dropped the references to my family members because I didn’t feel right deploying them as markers in an argument. Am fine that you saw it, but it might have been more well-placed in an email. Miss20 is an adult now and not necessarily comfortable with appearing in a comments thread. I stand by what I posted and was in fact in the process of elaborating when I realized it wasn’t appropriate for me — no judgment on you.

    Look. Just between you and me: I have some things I’m very serious about. I have some things I’m not so serious about (CompSci clearly being one of them — but honestly, if you’re really wanting an argument on your own turf then pick on somebody your own size: Rushkoff’s your huckleberry). And, I have a tendency to mischievous performance.

    One thing about which I am serious is that it is a Good Thing for autism to crash a party or six or seven where it can crack a few eggs and maybe get the idea that the world’s a bigger place than The Hushed Cathedral of Pain and Seriousness to which it is still mostly confined. If the Enlightenment’s not your scene, or your daughter’s, fine, but how exactly is her world improved by cranky genuflection to the Hushed Cathedral? When the Seriousness du jour bears a remarkable similarity to the learned monks’ famous discussion of how many autistics can dance on the head of a pin, er, on the top of a mountain, then I think there are employment opportunities for Cathedral jesters.

    I’m still a little miffed that no actual philosophers have turned up to flay me for misuse of Cartesian Dualism, but the fact remains that in this day and age we are conditioned to think in oppositional pairs. I think in order to come to terms with autism we need a new paradigm that moves beyond oppositional pairs (such as mountain and valley, true and false, autistic and not-autistic). One way to alleviate the stress of saying goodbye to the oppositional pairs we love so dearly is to send them up, to burlesque them, to leave a link at neuroskeptic in a comment.

    Thanks for coming over, MJ. Take care; don’t follow any bad links. Or, at least be sure you’ve had your coffee first.

  8. Jonathan says:

    I think it’s probably more accurate to suggest that the “binary” to which you speak is less about the medium that’s used (i.e., on and off, 0 and 1) and more about the increased importance of defining an algorithm for the purposes of arriving at a consistent answer. Computers were born out of mathematics, which attempts to be a closed system. It’s highly unlikely that “binary” thought was “forced” on early programmers. Rather, computer programs were a wickedly awesome way to crank through algorithms that were hell to do by hand. Perhaps (only very strongly perhaps) computers have brought algorithmic thought more into the mainstream with their popularity in recent years.

    Computers are really, really good at arriving at definitive answers based on a defined set of inputs. That said, what gets tricky is when you not only don’t know the values of all inputs but also don’t know what all the inputs are or don’t understand all the detailed rules involved in processing the inputs. Anyone who has ever attempted to simulate human thought with a computer will tell you how incredibly tricky it is. It’s unbelievable how many assumptions people make when thinking about something (such as how to cook dinner). When you write a computer program to do this, every minute assumption must be spelled out to every single case. It only emphasizes how incredibly unintelligent computers really are.

    I think that algorithms speak to our human instinct to attempt to classify our world. We classify things based on a defined set of inputs and arrive at conclusions from those inputs. You see this in the DSM, for example. Apply this algorithm to the person, and if they match enough of the criteria in certain combinations at a certain stage in their life, then bingo! They’re permanently autistic. If, however, the algorithm returns false, then they’re not autistic. While I understand that the DSM is only intended to be a guideline, at the heart of a diagnosis is, essentially, an algorithm.

    The problem is that, in something as complex as social science, we will never know what all those inputs are, and we will never know how to process all of them to arrive at an undisputed conclusion.

  9. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Well put. Thanks Jonathan.

  10. MJ says:

    Long belated apologies to MJ, as this comment was held up as pending due to the number of url’s contained in it.

    Ah, I can understand removing your earlier reference, I try not to go into a lot of details about my daughters out of respect for their privacy.

    And, just for the record, I have three daughters with autism, two of them are identical twins. And if there is one thing that they have taught me it is that autism is very different from person to person, even if two of those people share (almost) identical genes. It is also teaching me that I need better time management skills.

    As for where the harm is, things like this -

    or this -

    or especially this -

    It has been my experience that once people start abandoning the idea that autism is a disability, they also abandon the idea that those people who have serious troubles actually need help.

    So you have someone advocating against an evidence-based treatment that has greatly helped by children and convincing a new mother to do the same, you have someone trying to give their child autism, and you have a self-advocate trashing those who are lower functioning than he is.

    In my opinion, all of these things are directly harmful to children like mine.

Leave a Reply