One and Zero
[Written in 2010 for entrance into UT Austin's CS program.]
Seeking the Infinite
By John Richter
One and Zero.
At first glance, these digits appear meek and unassuming. Too, they seem limited, primitive even. But I warn you: while you may scoff at the perceived inadequacies of a one and a zero, don’t be fooled by their deceptively simple appearances: these digits are revolutionaries. In the right hands, they have elected leaders of the Free World, united the peoples of distant lands, and shaken the boots of dictators. Indeed, I know this because I once doubted the power of a one and a zero.
When I first embarked on my college experience three and a half years ago, I came in with distinct notions of who I was. Keen on understanding how the world operates, I gravitated towards the liberal arts, immersing myself in the study of great literature, political ideas and movements, and the workings of society. Through my chosen major and extracurricular activities, I came to be defined, by myself and others, as a specific breed of student: that vague stereotype of one engaged solely in the liberal arts and endowed with a heightened emotional sensitivity. But in embracing my liberal arts moniker, I allowed the label to overdetermine my identity, simultaneously erasing my past experiences with the sciences—those evenings watching PBS science programs or teaching myself web design—while confining my future progression; I circumscribed my identity between self-imposed borders.
Similarly, one might misinterpret the humble exteriors of these ones and zeros as signs of limitations. Be wary of such characterizations: bit by hardy bit, these digits form a cohesive unit of functional capability and the logical underpinnings of modern-day computing. Though their individual responsibilities are deceptively scant—representing one of two states—they can be coaxed and prodded into an infinite array of concerted forms. Limited these ones and zeros are not: it is through the creative arrangement of these characters that economic productivity and exchange has increased, in turn uniting peoples formerly isolated from one another. It is through these binary values that, in the 2008 US election, an unlikely candidate of atypical origins was able to win the presidency—an accomplishment scarcely conceivable without the rapid dissemination of information provided by web 2.0 technologies. And it is through these ones and zeros that, a mere six months later, an authoritarian regime in Iran was shaken to its core when citizens opposed a rigged election, rapidly relaying protest plans through cell phone texts (Twitter)—despite the best efforts of the government to stymie communication.
Over the ensuing years at Washington University, I interned in a variety of sectors related to my liberal arts degree, including nonprofits, documentary filmmaking, and the government, ultimately finding the lack of creative control and the dearth of analytical opportunities frustrating. Ironically, it was through my internships at the Sierra Club, where I developed a variety of websites, that I started to become aware of my passion for computer science: in each of these projects, I was forced to logically plot and systematically construct dynamic websites through a calculated combination of HTML, CSS, and PHP, incrementally building on prior foundations and isolating errors through deduction. In immersing myself in the nitty-gritty of web design, I stumbled upon the steady and persistent gratification of analytically solving many small problems and acquired the deeper understanding that these individual components were inextricably tied to a larger picture.
In youth, our minds tend to overflow with idealism and a sense of the big picture; almost universally, we harbor the preternatural intuition that the world can not only be better, but radically better. In coming of age, we are forced to apply our idealizations to the reality of the world; often, the amorphous theories of life germinating in our minds don’t measure up to our real life experiences. Through these disillusionments, we slowly gain a keen awareness of the lurking possibility of failure and existence of limits. Some of these limits are real, and others are imagined; however, some limits are simply real because we imagine them so—and in the mere process of imagining them, we sanctify and substantiate them. If not careful, this process of reconciling our real life experiences with our idealizations comes to deleteriously shape our being: it shades our decisions, our concepts of self, and even our notions of a higher power. We ignore the infinite parallel realities waiting to be culled into existence by an enterprising spirit—realities of a more connected, just, and sustainable world and realities of a more fascinating and meaningful personal life.
Through my circuitous path, I have come to realize that computer science is not just a series of ones and zeros, but in fact much more; that like the letters in a great novel, the components of computer science can be arranged in an infinite array of possibilities, undergirding a limitless number of realities. Moreover, not only are the logical bases formulated in computer science dependent variables precipitated through the ingenious will of men and women, they are also independent variables unto themselves, enhancing the agency of men and women and unleashing his and her potential. It is through computer science that I would like boldly shake off internalized limits and imaginatively articulate the pending future—a better one that I know exists.
For somewhere in the depths of our beings, we all understand that, just beyond one and zero, lies the infinite. And it is our task, if not instinct, to seek it.