Binaries, Polarisation and Privacy

Frances Bell, Francesbell's Blog, Mar 24, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

How do you get nuance in a world of binaries? David A. Banks argues, according to Frances Bell, that "the ‘binaries’ of up-voting and down-voting are inadequate for dealing with ambiguity and divisive topics. They are a tool for polarisation not a means of going beyond it." She also looks at the binary of public/private, a binary that has dominated a lot of recent discourse. "The binary nature of much of our online participation like/not like, friend/not friend, follow/ not follow, click/not click, upvote/downvote, block/ not block might be seeping into our culture,as well as the platforms on which we enact it." Well, yeah. But 'binary' isn't the issue; choice is. Any set of alternatives reduces logically to a set of binary choices; even the analog reduces to the differential. And binary up/down ratings systems are by far the most usable and most reliable (some people 'never give five stars').

We need to think this through carefully. There are two questions: first, how many choices do we get to make, and second, how are choices combined to create a result. More choices are better, but we reach a limit to out capacity to make choices. Sometimes pseudo-analog devices, like sliders, can help, but they reduce accuracy, and in any case, limits are still reached. More importantly, how do we combine choices? Usually it's a case of 'the most votes wins'. But this presumes everyone is asked the same question. It's more interesting is we have diverse questions. It's more interesting if we eschew 'most votes wins' for votes on inter-related entities (this gives each vote an 'echo' effect). We need choice, but more, we need to understand a lot better what choice is.


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