Stop with the Binary: I Am Neither a One Nor a Zero

Even though I know that the entire universe can be reduced to binary code, I do not believe that such a reductionist stance is entirely helpful. Why be reductionist when one can be expansive? If we take the ones and zeros and expand them ad infinitum, then take an expansive perspective, we must see something more than ones and zeros (such is an artist’s interpretation of binary code).

Why am I so worked up about this?

Because the world wants me to land on one side of the binary or the other. Are you a man or a woman? Are you an addict or sober? Are you an artist or a therapist? Are you gay or straight? Even the “in-between” answers such as “I am androgynous” or “I am bisexual” are extremely limiting. They still place people on a linear spectrum in between the binary categories and some of us do not fall anywhere on those spectrums!

These days I’m mostly interested in the “addict/not-addict” binary. It is intriguing how things get invented, slowly or quickly become part of the dominant cultural narrative, and are rarely questioned ever after. The dominant recovery narrative is very binary: you’re either an addict/alcoholic or you’re not. If you are, then you drink or drug yourself to “rock bottom” at which point you either die or get sober. Most likely sobriety comes in the form of 12 step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Supposedly it doesn’t matter which meetings you go to because if one is a drug addict one must be an alcoholic and vice versa.


The research on addiction is still controversial and narrow. Despite several decades of the medical “disease” model, Gabor Mate has recently touted what I like to call the “addicts just need friends” model (it’s actually much more robust than that… he has some interesting theories). It seems to me that there is likely truth to both of these theories though I wouldn’t automatically subscribe to anything considering how little we actually know about the brain. Not to mention the complexities of our fucked up social systems.

I recently took a bunch of courses to obtain my addictions specialist credential. Courses in which instructors were still adamantly describing addiction as a brain disease. When I brought in a more recent study which questioned the validity of that stance due to the phenomenon of neural plasticity, my instructors were surprised (and apparently were not keeping abreast of the literature). It seems the bottom line is that we don’t fully understand addiction though I highly suspect that it manifests differently in different people.

Why do we have such a need to create a universal, singular experience for all people?

And why do we label certain addictions “bad” when others are socially sanctioned?

Drugs = bad

Sugar = not so bad

Restricting calories = terrible

Overeating = probably shouldn’t do it but…

TV = not bad at all (shhhh)

Alcohol = bad for some, fine for others

Coffee = totally OK!

Internet = jury is still out

I have been told I am “fucked up” because I have struggled with anorexia for the majority of my adult life, yet my neighbor needs coffee to wake up every morning and no one questions the fuckedupedness of his brain. Wussup with that? Why are fingers pointed at me because I had a problem with amphetamines back in the day, but my friends can drink wine and beer every night without judgment?

What makes one addiction worse than another?

I held down a job when I was using. I was still an artist. I was still smart. I cared for my partner (financially and emotionally supported my partner, in fact) and my family. I never stole anything. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are not addicted to amphetamines, who can’t seem to keep a job, who don’t care for others, who steal things and lie…. So why am I labeled a drug addict who must abstain from all substances from now until I die? Correction: I must abstain from narcotics and alcohol but coffee, cigarettes, sugar, TV, internet etc… are all OK. If I don’t use drugs, but I drink coffee, am I sober? If I have a beer, but don’t eat sugar, am I sober? If I can’t tear myself away from the internet but I don’t drink, am I an alcoholic?

Methinks ’tis more complex than addict/not-addict.

Methinks binary constructs leave out complex layers of individual and collective experiences, thereby ignoring nuances that could lead to more robust treatment options which might impact a larger population than oh say just 12 step programs.

I don’t actually have answers. I just like to ask questions. Think critically. Don’t drink the Kool-aid. Expand das mind.

Stop trying to binary me.





3 thoughts on “Stop with the Binary: I Am Neither a One Nor a Zero

  1. I love your blog and what you are expressing on it and I agree with where you went with this one, but I want to take a moment and put on my mathematician hat about how it began (I think you’ll like where this ends up).
    We cannot “reduce” the universe to binary code, although we may be able to “express” it in that way (the number of bits would be so large, however, that even trying to figure out how many would be silly). It’s like how Shakespeare expressed ideas of love in Romeo and Juliet using only a 26 character encoding (the alphabet). The encoding facilitates transmission, but doesn’t actually tell us what those ideas mean, or how they make us feel, or who they inspired. In the same way, the encoding of the universe would express its state in a particular instance in time, but does not tell us anything about how we feel about it, or how we’re inspired by it. Physicists aren’t even sure it could tell us where the universe has been or where it is going (if the rules are non-deterministic).
    We often think of binary as meaning “either/or”, and it can, but it doesn’t have to. I can express either/or in binary (0 or 1). I can create a one dimensional continuum and express a point on that continuum (for 8 bits of precision 0001000 is near the middle). I can also express a 71 dimensional hyper-volume twisting and spinning its way through a 116 dimensional space (00110010…lots and lots of bits).
    The idea you’ve been expressing for a while now, that thinking of things as binary is limiting, is entirely true. In fact, even binary code is not as binary as we tend to think. If we look not just at what the code is, but take an expansive perspective of what the code means, we will certainly see more than just zeroes and ones.


    • I was wondering what it was going to take for you to comment on my blog. I knew I didn’t totally understand binary code… was trying to relate it to my experience of social binaries. I super appreciate your perspective, but even more than that, I LOVE that you worked Shakespeare into your mathematical explanation. You know me well.


  2. All of those binaries are social constructs – you can’t get away from them unless they become socially deconstructed. I’m not sure how we can do that – but it is nearly impossible to get people (let alone institutions) who uphold the binary to understand an identity that is outside of it.


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