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The Benefits of Negotiated Binaries

Beyond The Binaries is a collection of essays, compiled by Compass, that look at the polarities of the world as we know it and presents a "range of different perspectives from across the progressive spectrum" as a step towards "bringing new political identities and formations into being".

Here we share with you Hattusia founder Alice Thwaite's contribution in full. This is one of our longer blogs, so good to saviour on an "Autumn blanket on the sofa" kind of day...

Over the past five years, it has been popular to state that we are a society divided, and perhaps more divided than ever before. We have created systems that are inherently complex, and perspectives that have completely different epistemological and ontological structures. There is so much diversity, and yet if one is to glance over the headlines, it will seem that the issues are simple.

I am a technology philosopher and ethicist, specialising in how to construct healthy and democratic information environments. I’ve long advocated for an approach to polarisation which doesn’t try to eliminate disagreement, but rather asks: “how can we be different and still get along?” It can be hard to see that conflict between two ideas is a key part of democratic freedom.

In my contribution to this collection, I will be arguing against the binary that ‘binaries are wrong’, particularly in the context of social media and technology. I will explore the idea that we need binaries and categorical language in order to make decisions, and to establish communities which drive political movements. We can use simplified language as a tool to create better politics; binaries and categorisations are an unavoidable part of communication. Without communication and without language, we do not have a democracy. But it's also important to understand the limitations and potential misuses of binaries – I will be exploring this too.

Binaries: a necessary evil

In order to express simple ideas, we need a common language. When we communicate with each other, we have to have a hegemonic definition of what a word vaguely means, in order to trust each other and get things done.

It’s just like when you grab a coffee: in this very every-day scenario, you use simple language to make a request and get something you want. It goes like this:

1. At today's coffee place, you have two options: coffee or tea. You ask for a coffee.

2. The barista produces a drink which fits in with your shared approximation of what ‘coffee’ is.

3. You only have a rough idea of how big the coffee will be, how it will taste, etc – but you trust that it will be coffee.

4. You receive coffee; you are happy; all because both you and the barista understand what ‘coffee’ is, in your shared context.

It's important to note that what doesn't happen in this interaction is a long explanation from you about how you want the coffee made, and another long explanation from the barista about the origin of the beans – you don't need to know any of that stuff to buy a coffee.

This everyday interaction is laced with complex unknowns that are entirely unimportant to the act of making and drinking coffee. You, the receiver of coffee doesn't have to know where the coffee comes from, or that a cup of coffee is produced by forcing hot water through ground, roasted, beans. You can just simplify it all down to 'can I have a coffee please' and move on with your day.

In this example, there were two choices, but even if there were ten different choices of hot beverage, each with the option of twenty flavoured syrups and five different types of milk, it is still a much more simplified menu than a list of all possible drinks. The categories are practical. Simplification means that we can get stuff done. Keeping things simple makes our lives easier and happier. Binaries and categorisations are an important part of this simplicity.

Political binaries: who decides?

Part of being human is to self-identify with different groups, and this is partially led by your political ideology. These chosen identities are incredibly important – I'll get into more detail about why further down.

For now, let's have a look at some of these identities so you can see what I mean: below I've drawn out a table of divisions which are particularly prevalent in the UK and in progressive politics at the moment. You'll notice that alongside each identity pair is the issue that those identities are in a debate over.

These are just single issues, though. Individuals are complex, and therefore made up of lots of different identities. Like this:

But these characters are all works of fiction. Although we can make up stories about them to make them seem more like real people, it is impossible to see them without the ‘author’ in the picture, because the author has played a part by applying these labels on the characters' behalf. So, a real life person might self-identify as a Blairite or Corbynite, but if some external entity imposes one of these labels onto that person we have to ask: on what authority did they make these judgments?

The problem is especially apparent in algorithmic decision-making, where, in a deeply stratified and unequal society, categorisations are often used contentiously. This animation illustrates a machine programmed to perform one task: decide which individuals in a population should be surveilled.

How is the machine making these decisions? In order to 'know' who should go on a police watch list, the machine needs to be programmed to 'understand' enough about individuals, so it can make judgements about them. That means, just like with the above characters, the machine will categorise people into identities, and decide if they should go on a watch list based on those. The machine is taught which of a limited set of identities should result in that individual going on a police watch list.

Just like with the coffee scenario, we find that a very complicated interaction has been reduced to a simple binary choice: should this person be surveilled or should they not be surveilled? However, unlike the coffee scenario, this interaction is covert. The participant is unaware that they are being judged by an algorithm, and they have not given their permission to be processed. Furthermore, they don't have any control over their identity. The participant is unable to change the outcome of the transaction – they cannot negotiate their identity in any way, or have a conversation about whether the interaction is actually fair. This is especially wrong because most machine categorisations are inaccurate, and these inaccuracies have been proven to penalise minority communities, like people of colour.

This is a case of hard power. This machine-made decision is highly consequential, because it concerns a person's freedom. The same models are used when exercising soft power: just as above, this algorithm decides whether a person should be targeted by social media advertising about the opening of a new bar in Hackney.

This is a much softer type of power, but it is still problematic because of the same reasons as the hard power example: these are decisions based on a set of assumed identities that the individual cannot control, and the decisions are executed at great scale and high speeds. The information environment that a person is in will affect their happiness and the 57 Beyond the Binaries opportunities that they believe are available to them.

For instance, one person may have a feed which is filled with opportunity: new jobs available, new attractions opening in their area and offers on interesting brands and shops. Another may see adverts for gambling, pay day loans and so on. This different information environments will change the person’s identity, whether or not they were accurate about their assumptions in the first place.

Covert categorisation of people in tech is a problem in terms of binaries. We are constantly being categorised as a particular identity, but in a way that is non-negotiable. This is one of the reasons why AI systems have been called a 'black box'.

The utility of a chosen identity

There is power in expressing and choosing your identity. Anyone who has ever tried to push for societal change, or a business transformation, knows that there has to be a community who takes responsibility for that change. There is strength in numbers. And if the community has leaders who can move the group in a strategic direction to create change, then that strength turns into power.

The importance of identity cannot be understated, and the use of identity as a political statement has been catalogued over the past centuries. In Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, Richard Thompson Ford details the ways that humans have used clothes to signify our identities to certain tribes. Men who wanted to signal they were part of the enlightenment movement in the 18th century turned away from flamboyant clothes, wigs and make-up to adopt the practical and dull blue or black three-piece suit. The Scottish elite adopted tartan and Highland costume to express their disdain of being part of England when the Highland Society of London was formed in 1778. In the 1920s, Flappers 'abandoned full skirts and unswept coifs for form-fitting clothing and short, practical “bobbed” hair' to challenge gender convention and move away from the idea that middle and upper-class women were simply ornamental.

Today, people willingly associate their identities with a cause. 'I am an antiracist', 'I am a feminist', 'I am a conservative' and so on. There would be no politics without identity, nor without community. We could never progress without these factors. We see countless examples of communities coming together to campaign for change. If we want to be progressive, we should be championing the creation of these groups, and listening to what they have to say.

So the question is, how can we maintain the utility of identity in politics, whilst avoiding silos and encouraging disputation but not harassment nor violence?

Division in binaries? Identity and violence

Anecdotally, I feel like identity binaries are often accused of a lot of wrongdoing. Some believe that binaries are responsible for apparent polarisation that exists between groups and individuals. Over the past few years, there has been plenty of discussion around whether social media platforms encourage us to view existing issues as binary, and/or increase tensions between people with different beliefs.

Given the amount of attention that this has been given in the popular media and, indeed, the way that politicians and leaders so frequently refer to social-media-driven polarisation as a truth-absolute, you would have thought there would be more evidence to show the link between binaries and violence.

I think there are two issues which deserve a little more exploration:

1. Social media platforms portray an incomplete picture of a person, which leads us to stereotype a person for their views, and potentially engage in harassment and acrimonious dialogue

2. Social media platforms have a tendency to radicalise, either through news feed algorithms or by giving extremists easy mechanisms for recruitment and amplification.

However, I don’t think that the solution to these issues exists in the abolition of binaries or categorisations on social media. The issue is more complicated, so requires further examination. Few people have been given the funding to robustly look into the theory behind these statements and create a course of action which acknowledges the importance of categorisation whilst minimising the harm it causes.

It's important that we stop fighting against the 'Us' vs 'Them' dynamic. We will never live in a world where 'Us' vs 'Them' doesn't exist, so this fight is a distraction from what we really should be striving for: a world where there is no violence between 'Us' and 'Them'; where each group has equal rights and where there is respect on each side for the other's basic humanity and worth.

What next?

One could say that I’m so anti-binary, that I’m even prepared to sit on the fence as to whether binaries are wrong.

This article has wound its way through many debates in tech, politics and society from the grounding point of ‘the binary’. I’ve argued that binaries are useful – because we need to simplify complexity. I’ve shown the limits of the usefulness, in the form of degradation of human identity into nonconsensual categories which lead to stereotypes. I’ve briefly touched on the polarisation challenge and of the utility of identity in creating political change.

In my work, I often find that ethical and political problems are much easier to solve when you make them as specific as possible. When we talk about general topics, of course we’ll find concepts which are metaphysically incompatible, and we’ll struggle to say whether something is ‘inherently bad’ or ‘inherently good’. I believe that more of these questions should be answered on a more granular basis – and that the methods we use to answer them should be multi-disciplinary. At the moment, I find that the philosophical method has been relegated to the sideline as law, social science, and political science take the stage.

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The philosophy of technology is woefully underfunded, even in the science and technology studies space. There are incredibly few ‘professional philosophers’, fewer than professional anthropologists and social scientists, which are also desperately needed in this space. Instead of offering broad brush solutions to distinct problems we should be investigating each incident in an exact and precise manner.

Having said this, I would like to propose a line of enquiry. As mentioned in the introduction, I think that we should prioritise the question: 'how can we be different and still get along?', as well as looking to promote intrinsic goods like freedom, peace, and justice. I truly believe that we should be doing more work to enable humans to understand each other.

One of the ways that this might happen is by embracing the principles of mutual recognition. This comes in three parts.

First, confidence: to understand others you must understand yourself – meaning that you must be confident that your own emotions, values and contributions to society are valid. What’s more, you must feel confident in your ability to enact change, and recognise that your actions have consequences. In this way, you recognise yourself as a morally responsible human being.

Second, respect: when you are confident you can take a look at others, recognising that they too have valid emotions, values and contributions to society. They are also responsible human beings and deserve equal recognition for being so. We are all entitled to rights that respect our humanity.

Third, esteem: through respect we understand that all people have equal rights. Adding esteem into the equation extends those rights to the equal expression of our differences. In the modern world we need an abundance of difference to uphold complex societies, so we should hold difference in esteem.

Mutual recognition is not profound, but it is an unusual approach to the problem in the polarisation space. Maybe the best way to create change in society is to invest in our own belief and self-confidence. We shouldn’t be looking at improving systems so much as giving us space to grow into being human. This doesn’t necessarily lead to improved economic or political efficiency, but could lead to us being much more content and curious humans. Which is arguably the most important goal that any activist or politician fights for.


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