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Meditations On The Switch

The humble switch. A simple device that presents us with two choices, true or false. A utilitarian construct that encapsulates the idea of things being on or off. We use switches millions of times every day, without ever thinking about them. They are in our homes, in our cars, and billions of them live inside our cell phones, computers and TVs. Far from being trivial, switches represent the essence of everything.

Switches are not just a physical device. They are also an idea. They allow a force to flow, and they prevent its flow. They select from a basic duality that is elemental to every domain of reality and all realms of ideas.

The simplicity, familiarity and commonality of a physical switch hides the deep complexity of the ideas with which it connects us. If you are philosophically inclined, you might consider Evil to be the opposite of Good in the sense that Evil is the absence of Good. Good, is the absence of everything that is Evil. When deciding which moral force to channel ourselves; we, in the analogy, become a switch.

The fact that a switch chooses between yes and no doesn’t necessitate that the reality that materializes when the switch is in one position or the other is limited to only two states. Banks of switches together can select from a range of options. They can count. They can encode complex constructs and present vast spectrums of options. They just do it two choices at a time. While a single switch represents only a zero or a one. Two switches can represent zero, one, two and three. Three switches can count eight states. Collections of switches can store ideas. They can perform work when they are turned on or off. Some switches can turn others on or off, based on the logic and rules they encode. And the rules that govern how these switches are turned on or off can themselves be encoded and stored in configurations of switches. Switches are memory. Switches are action. Switches are algorithms. Switches are universal representations.

So, no, a switch isn’t something that lets you merely choose between two states. Everything you see, experience and do can be represented as a collection of switches. Every complex idea, every set of choices is, in the end, just a configuration on a bank of switches.

Far from being trivial, the switch is an almighty device and a celestial idea. It is a physical manifestation of the choice that exists between two primal states; being and not being. Without the switch, there is no on and no off. One state – sameness – is equivalent to nothingness. It is only the switch that introduces the idea of a difference, and thus, the idea of anything at all. Without the switch, there is no zero or one. Since either one of these is the opposite of the other, that is, to be one – to exist in a minimally countable way – is the opposite of being zero, being nothing or not existing. It is the switch that lets you determine which is which and lets you discern. It is the switch that creates an optionality so primal, so essential to the universe that variations of it make up all of reality, all of physics, all of computer science.

The humble switch. An idea so powerful that in its various manifestations, it makes up everything around us. All hail, the mighty switch!