Cover Photo by Devin Edwards on Unsplash

We’re surrounded by binary choices in our world: the light switch is on or off, we can have a glass of wine or not. We oftentimes want to apply this idea to other situations: our friends like us or not, our work is good or bad. The truth is very few things are actually binary, and almost everything in the world exists as a composition of states - in other words, reality is complicated.

At times, it is useful to think of things in this very simple way. A program is secure or not, a department is in compliance or it isn’t, the light is on or off. It’s a shortcut, a quick way of thinking and talking and often times that is valuable.

But often people confuse this trick, this simplification, for the state of things. Security is not a light switch, rather there are degrees of security - what is secure from your roommate is not secure from the NSA. Even our light switch can be precariously balanced in the middle, letting the light sometimes flicker on and sometimes flicker off.

This understanding that almost nothing is actually binary is what allows us to have nuance. It’s the difference between “the opposition is evil!” and “the opposition sometimes does bad things but also sometimes good things.” One of those is a great tool for convincing people to take up arms on your side, and the other one is accurate and truthful.

A model, a shortcut, has value but the way it provides value is by simplifying the truth. Models can be deceived, cheated, incomplete and just plain wrong. They aren’t meant to be perfect, they’re meant to reduce reality into a small enough set of facts to let you answer a problem. That’s a valuable property, but they are just a hammer - a tool. They are not mirrors or magnifying glasses of reality. When we can embrace nuance, we can move closer to understanding reality.

When you find yourself thinking in binary states, stop. Take a moment and ask yourself if this model is useful right now. Is the topic you’re looking at a light switch kind of topic, or is it complicated and deserving of closer inspection?