The Banana is Big, but the Skin is Bigger

This isn’t about sex or the Asian experience in Canada (that sentence may draw a few confused Google visitors). At some point in high school, one of my English teachers told a story about the danger of drugs. A writer – perhaps Coleridge? – was high on opium. In his trance, a sudden a flash of insight revealed to him the truth of reality: of life, the universe, and everything. He wrote it down, and when he recovered from his trance, he read what he had written:

“The banana is big, but the skin is bigger.”

So, the teacher said, here endeth the lesson. Drugs are bad, m’kay?

I didn’t say a word, but I thought he was wrong. Now I think I can explain why.

“The banana is big, but the skin is bigger.” It’s obvious, but it’s not a tautology. The world is big, complex, unimaginable. The banana is one tiny grain of truth, but it doesn’t stand alone. It’s a truth connected to all of the other truths. It’s a Rosetta Stone for reality. For that one sentence to make sense, so much else must obtain.

A banana grows on a tree, which is a plant, with genes and sunlight and soil. For the skin to be bigger, it must have size, shape, dimension, physics; there must be a concept of skin and a concept of bigger.

We understand all of this in an instant, unconsciously. We think it’s trivial: it is not. How many computers understand the skin of a banana? How many animals? This is why computer programming is hard; why artificial intelligence is harder. To understand the skin of bananas, you must understand 95% of the world. The insight of the banana skin is that the world is complex and interconnected, that our understanding of it is subconscious.

The skin of the banana is an insight worthy of Freud. Maybe it is about sex after all.

2005-03-19

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