Attention and the Tyranny of Dichotomy


Crude dichotomies are attention grabbers.

Statements no one could disagree with on one side and evil practices on the other make zero difference in practice. Because there's context, for one. There are priors, biases, and assumptions. Even right and wrong are not absolutes.

The world is not divided into saints and sinners. Few practice evil consciously, no one can sustain good practices consciously. If the answer is self-evident, there's little to no cognitive challenge. A visual rendition of obvious statements just makes them more obvious.

But not more useful. These “not this/but that” dichotomies are everywhere… except for in reality. Hence they have no use value. Our world is complex. You'd be closer to accuracy using a spectrum as your framework.

However, that never stopped anyone determined enough from believing they could reduce things to a two-column chart. Hence the world is divided. Not by two-column charts. But by a simplistic, contrast-forced monopoly on attention.

Devices hold it, with their divisive root of the word. “Method by which something is divided.”

But even “it's one thing or the other” can have more nuance.


Mac vs. PC

If we're going to divide the world into two things, at least we can respect their respective historical roots. Umberto Eco put it best:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant.

Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach—if not the Kingdom of Heaven—the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions…..

And machine code, which lies beneath both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that is to do with the Old Testament, and is Talmudic and cabalistic.

This is an excerpt from an English translation of the late author's back-page column, La bustina di Minerva, in the Italian newsweekly Espresso (September 30, 1994). Here's his first one, where he explains the name.

I miss Eco's attentive gaze on the nuances of the world. At least as much as I miss travel. Yet, his kind of travel humor drives home the misery of what travel had become. Right now, routes are impossible, two stops for everything. No, thank you. But I look forward to a new kind of travel.

I switched from PC to Mac in 2007, after my sixth hard drive imploded. I took a look at Vista, and said, “hasta la vista!” And I didn't look back…. until recently. Macs used to be easier to use, and fun. I'm finding the constant “log into your Apple account” prompts annoying as hell.

Now it's Mac “and” PC. Schadenfreude of some sort. Because everyone wants its lock in.


All great discoveries happen by chance

But lock in is not going to create “what's next.”

As Eco echoed often in his column, all great discoveries happen by chance. Serendipity. What if we followed what is possible, and not yet fixed into a dichotomy, so that we could explain what the current laws (and best practices) cannot tell us?

This intuition doesn't just show up, fully formed. It forms through meandering pathways. Mostly, passing through territories others have explored. In the haste to get things done, we've forgotten how to discover new things. For that we need to operate in open mode.

Thinking before writing or talking is useful. But not as valuable as writing and talking to think things through. The best ideas can happen by chance. If they're any good, usually there's a deep reservoir of ideas and test others have had and done behind them.

Culture is the territory. And it is quite vast. Eco found inspiration from irritation. When he felt disappointed, that's what prompted his writing. Hist work demonstrated how intelligence could shine through even the most pedestrian of topics.

Even online search is hard, if you don't know how to ask the question. Curiosity can help you break away from the tyranny of dichotomy. When you're curious, you can find a seemingly parallel universe brimming with energy ready for exploration.

Perhaps what needs doing is a scaling down on expectations.


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