Booleans Considered Garbage

Written Tuesday, November 15, 2022

I couldn't resist the title of this post. I'll take a moment to explain it properly, because it is a silly computer programming joke, but the thing I'm trying to say here really has very little to do with programming or even computers in general - I promise. If it helps, just think of this as having the alternate title: "True or False is a bad way to think about things." You can even skip to the section with that heading if you like!

I recently exited a career of just over twenty years in software development. I've been fascinated with programming ever since I was very young; and while there's plenty of stories to explore from that aspect of my life, like I said, I'm not really here to talk about programming or computers or digital technology. But it is a very long-running part of my life, and many ideas from software have deeply wormed their way into my brain in the form of analogies and ways I conceptualize my own life and experiences.

My distaste for binary thinking actually began quite young. I can remember, sometime around fifth or sixth grade (10 or 11 years of age) that I'd been learning about binary number systems, and in my typical rebellious form, I wanted to know why we used the number 2 instead of, say 3. Nobody had any answers that I liked.

So I set about to try to imagine a computer that worked with 3 choices instead of 2, or an infinite number of choices in general - and sooner or later, wound up trying to wrap my young, still-developing brain around the concept of analog computing. Analog computing almost immediately seemed to me, on an intuitive level, to be a better match for reality than binary, or indeed any other discretized numerical model. But when I asked an older relative why analog computers were invented and then abandoned, now obscure and largely forgotten, he shrugged and said, "it's too complicated to try to think that way."

In my programming career, I often found myself saying things in a similar spirit to the title of this essay; and, time and again, I found myself confronting a very similar dismissal from those around me: it's too complicated to try to think that way. This phenomenon was a source of great frustration for me, as a professional programmer - and, ironically, one I had to leave the field entirely to actually finally understand clearly.

There are themes here that I want to get back to, but first, let's get the housekeeping out of the way. In particular, the title of this post is a three-fold programming joke. I promised I would explain it, and I promise then I'll be done talking about computer stuff for the remainder of this post; but even if you're not into programmer jokes, the explanation has some useful context that will carry forward into understanding the rest of what I have to say here.

First up, the term "Boolean" is a common one in programming; it is used, in reference to the work in the field of formal logic by one George Boole, to denote something that we consider "either true or false."

Secondly, the term "garbage" is a bit tongue-in-cheek here. It is both meant to connote a kind of pejorative rejection, as well as to invoke a very specific programming concept. Programming often involves the management of limited resources, such as storage space and memory. When we're done using some storage or memory to do something interesting, it's good hygiene to clean up after ourselves, and reuse that space for other stuff.

In certain kinds of computer programming approaches, this process happens more or less automatically; when the computer recognizes that the data in storage is no longer useful, the data is marked as "garbage", and the storage can be reclaimed and reused for other things.

In the context of computer programming, this so-called strategy of "garbage collection" is a very useful, extremely wide-spread, and quite effective way to make sure we aren't wasting limited resources. "Garbage" is, quite simply, any data that we shouldn't consider to have useful meaning anymore and can just get rid of.

Last (and, actually, very much least) the actual phrasing of this title is a nod to an infamous paper from the computer programming field, Goto Considered Harmful. There is a long tradition of making similar jokes in programming-related writing, and given the nerdity level of invoking Boolean data as well as garbage collection, I figured it was only fitting to jump on that train. I'm going to stop talking about computer junk now, so suffice it to say that the paper remains - even many decades after its publication - both controversial and deeply instructive; I can only aspire to a legacy of such lasting impact here.

True or False is a bad way to think about things

This is really the gist of what I want to explore here. There is a truly pervasive tendency, in our world, to try to reduce things into very simple terms - and the simplest possible terms are "yes and no", or "true and false" - or, more abstractly, the concept of a binary.

Our culture tries to reduce things like gender (or even anatomical sex) to a binary of male and female; this is, of course, not merely a preposterous oversimplification, but an outright violence of erasure to the millions of people who do not fit neatly into those categories.

We listen to the voices of others, and decide whether we "agree" or "disagree" and then immediately set about justifying why; but this is, in itself, a binary mode of engaging with ideas.

Sometimes we admit the existence of multiple categories, but still stubbornly refuse to allow things to blur the lines, cross the boundaries, or defy categorization whatsoever; normative culture divides interpersonal relationships into buckets like "friends" and "family" and "lovers" without regard to the way actual interactions defy those constructs on a daily basis.

This kind of simplification can complicate the process of understanding - for example, for those of use whose allegiance to "family" of a genealogical/natal variety is directly hazardous to our lives and health; we are often compelled to distinguish our intimate relationships as "chosen" or "found" family in order to shine light on the innately limiting concept of "family" as it is often understood in the world around us.

We even, in colloquial English, tend to reserve even the word "relationship" for denoting a very specific mode of relationship, incurring a violent erasure and omission against all the relationships we have with literally everyone and everything around us, as well as before and after us.

And indeed, for any number of experiences - be they queer, multicultural, disabled, etc. - one of the most common struggles we face is to understand ourselves when offered only limited options for contextualizing our own lives.

It is as if the world has a menu, and on that menu are a small number of options. Most people seem content to just pick something from the menu. If we don't want anything from the menu, it can be profoundly alienating, lonely, and even destructive to our very souls; it is a deadly thing, to not see ourselves reflected in the choices we are offered by life.

I cannot put into words the profound, life-altering experience it is, to finally see someone else come along and order something that's not on the menu. To realize that we have choices that are not listed for us is immensely empowering and freeing.

This exact conundrum is why I have chosen, despite it being a very real risk to myself and my own comfort and safety, to remain steadfastly, defiantly, and loudly visible, in all of my intersections and experiences - both of oppression and of privilege. It is hard to be what we cannot see; so I make an effort to order off-the-menu of normative life and expectation as often as I can, in hopes that doing so will create space and permission for someone else to discover options that are more befitting to them.

All of this is fine and good on a theoretical, conceptual level; and, having the benefit of hindsight, I can talk about it all with relative ease. But I want to be very clear: this is not an understanding that I arrived at quickly, nor easily, nor without encountering great resistance - both from within myself, and from without.

Breaking free of limited-choice mentalities and modes of thinking is a difficult effort. We are surrounded by, bombarded by, and exploited by any number of insistent pressures that tell us that we need more simplicity not less; more efficiency is often a euphemism for faster results and this in turn frequently means removing options. "Streamlining" and "optimizing" become things we do not just to our lives and technologies and habits, but to our very notions of what it means to exist, and how to do so.

Removal of options is always, inherently and unavoidably, an act of erasure. It is a denial of possibility. And to anyone who would perhaps regard those removed possibilities as appealing, or even ideal, this erasure is a violence against our potential to be.

On the other extreme end of the scale, we find a curious phenomenon of analysis paralysis - the inability to choose, because there are too many choices, and we don't know how to pick from among them.

I want to be very clear, I am not unsympathetic to the very real struggles that such choice-paralysis can cause. In point of fact, I suffer from this very paralysis myself in quite a few ways. I find options - in any number of arenas of life - to be deeply compelling and necessary, while also being overwhelming and complicated and even scary.

How is it, I found myself often wondering, that I both want choices, and am terrified of being offered them? How can I simultaneously despise being given a prescribed schedule or routine, while clinging to consistency, ritual, and repetition as sources of comfort for simply approaching my moment-to-moment existence? How is it that I can find myself having both too many choices, and not enough options?

Attempting to grapple with this paradox, both in the scope of my everyday lived experience as well as theoretically, has led to a tremendous amount of upheaval in the way I think about and understand, well, everything.

I think there is a lot at play here. One layer of it, to be sure, is the extant hell of capitalism. In an oppressive, exploitative economic model, our value and worth is conflated with monetary concerns; our time ceases to be a gift with which we find ways to dance the dance of our own lives, and becomes a commodity which we cede in exchange for food, shelter, and comfort. We can never have enough time, because we always are being pressed to produce more, to accomplish more, to get stuff done.

Sometimes we truly do need to stay busy in order to survive; there is a very real class-based oppression that keeps this so. But even if we happen to have enough privilege, within this system, to not constantly be doing shit, we often find ourselves at a total loss, struggling with a strange anxiety and discomfort, because we have never learned how to not do shit.

This is a cruel, viscerally relatable manifestation of one of systemic oppression's favorite weapons: exhaustion.

Exhaustion is not just about being tired, although it's very easy to recognize exhaustion at work if tiredness gets involved. Oppressive exhaustion also manifests in the realm of artificial scarcity. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of "scarcity" in our lives - at least in terms of how capitalism and other hegemonic oppressive systems want us to see things - is artificial. This scarcity exists more in our understanding of things than in our reality.

When oppression tries to impose an artificial scarcity of choices and possibilities for us, it deploys exhaustion in a particular way. To remove our ability to choose things is to reduce our ability to live our lives, to feel our joys and to be our fullest, truest selves, and to connect with people and form relationships of mutual love and nurturing with the world around us.

But oppression doesn't just cut off our options via material deprivation. In many cases, especially to regulate those who do hold various degrees of privilege within the systems of kyriarchy, oppression will deploy a second of its arsenal of horrific weapons: idea control.

Idea control tells us what we are allowed to think. It tells us what we are supposed to feel. In short, idea control is all about telling us we don't have as many options as we really do. Blinding us to our possibilities is crucial for the long-term survival of any kind of systemic oppression. It is the slow-acting poison that tells us that, no, it doesn't matter if we like the way things are; we should relent, we should give in, acquiesce, even become complicit in the oppression, because like it or not, that's just the way things are.

Fuck that.

I refuse to only order things that are on the menu.

I refuse to believe that the choices we can see are the only ones that can possibly exist.

I refuse to be afraid of paradox. After all, some of the most dramatic insights that have ever been added to our collective understanding of things have come from those who stared deeply into the terrifying implications of paradox, and found a way out.

Instead of finding contradiction, I choose to strive to see a larger reality in which options can co-exist with validity. I refuse to uphold the oppressive myth that all difference must necessarily imply conflict or competition.

I choose to learn how to safely make friends with things that make no sense, that seem to have no use, that don't feel like they align. Not all of these are dangerous things - at least, not dangerous to us, although they often are painted as universally dangerous by idea control because they are, in fact, dangerous to the structures of power and oppression. These are the glimmers of light that tells us where the exits are - the ways beyond the limiting, suffocating, murderous reality of oppression we find all around us.

I reject simplicity. I choose to fall in love with complexity.

For much of my life, I was terrified of being wrong. I tied a deep sense of my own self-worth, and even identity, to my ability to be right. Like many other things that have changed within my brain and heart over the years, this did not go away quickly. It took tremendous time, effort, and pain. I can sit here, now, and extol the virtues of having undertaken that journey; but I would be remiss to do so without including the confession that many chapters of that story hurt a hell of a lot.

I no longer fret, much, about being wrong. I strive not to be, of course, but if I am; that's ok! It is not a sign of my own failing, or a mark against me as a person, or an indicator that I am somehow lacking in worth or substance. Instead, I see the inevitable moments of being wrong as being my friends. They are invitations to learn, to grow, to change; and change is a fundamental reality of the experience of life.

We are finite beings. Our reality is infinitely more complex, intricate, wild, variegated, and expansive than we will ever be able to truly grasp. From this perspective, not-knowing something cannot be a value judgment against ourselves; for indeed, there will always be things we do not know, no matter how hard we try to accumulate knowledge, either personally or collectively.

It took many long years, but now, I don't feel angry at myself or unhappy when I am wrong. It may sting my ego, for a time, but I remind myself - growth often includes discomfort. I am not hurting because I am lesser for having been wrong; I'm hurting because I am choosing to grow, and I grow because I am alive. I continue to embrace this experience when it happens, no matter how uncomfortable or painful, because it means I am choosing to live well - to never give up on my own ability to learn and to change.

I do not spell this journey out in an attempt to exonerate all ignorance. Indeed, our world is full of many ills, and our privileges often allow us to remain ignorant of them - and yet, in the pursuit of good lives, of just lives, and of healthy loving relationships with reality, we must not remain ignorant. Willful ignorance can and should be regarded harshly. Expecting other people to be solely responsible for curing our ignorance is not acceptable; our world of oppression asks far too much of the oppressed and marginalized as it is, and nobody should be expected to carry the burden of educating the privileged while also holding the burden of being perpetually kicked aside and downtrodden.

At the same time, in parallel, without conflict or contradiction, I hold that is important to be compassionate with ourselves about the process of learning. This is an ability that I had to learn, as part of the invaluable process of learning to be on my own side. Without that skill, that capacity to hold my own ignorance without judgment, I never would have had the emotional capacity to learn as much as I have.

We cannot hope to understand, let alone meaningfully heal, unless we embrace the complicated. As bell hooks reminded us, we cannot love what we fear. If we fear the messiness within ourselves, we cannot truly, fully love ourselves. If we fear our differences with each other, we cannot love each other; and if we don't learn to love each other, to exist and share space in a relationship of respect and autonomy for everyone and everything, we have no hope of attaining true liberation.

In the end, if we fear the bewildering diversity of difference and complication around us, we cannot love the inherently chaotic, unpredictable, untamable mess that is our very universe. If we fear a life that is more than just a yes or no, a true or false, a simple selection from a multiple-choice menu… then we can never, truly, learn to love being alive.

I have made the choice, time and again, to try to learn to love life - all life, all reality, not just my own. It is a constant, ongoing effort. It is a diligence, a dedication that I must reaffirm and renew every single day; and some days, I feel I fail more often than I succeed. It is hard, and scary, and challenging.

And I will never, ever, stop choosing to love life.