Bits and Pieces

Matthew Hutson, English 111, Brown University (1998)

What exactly is a bit?

Nicholos Negroponte of MIT defines "bit" in Holtzman (123): "A bit has no color, size, or weight, and it can travel at the speed of light. It is the smallest atomic element in the DNA of information. It is a state of being: on or off, true or false, up or down, in or out, black or white. For practical purposes, we consider a bit to be a 1 or a 0." This idea of a "bit", a single one or zero floating around in a platonic realm contradicts our intuitive notion of information storage.

There is a subtle point I must add here. Technically, digital information (information in the form of bits) does not exist independently of a physical medium. We merely treat it this way because it is independent of any particular medium. A chunk of data expressed in ones and zeros can exist in the form of electrons moving through a circuit, a series of X's and 0's written on a wall, an arrangement of rocks, or a series of guttural noises. These can all represent 1's and 0's, and thus an identical series of 1's and 0's expressed each of these varied means is always exactly the same piece of information. If one were to imagine information conversion between media as a game of telephone among friends, one can understand digital information as clear, succinct English words repeated from ear to ear. Analogue information, however, might consist of a sequence of clear yet undefined noises and syllables. One cannot use discrete words to express every wisp of meaning implied by the particular expression of these sounds, and so the message quickly evolves as it goes around the circle of friends.

On page 164 of Digital Mosaics, Steven Holtzman describes the limitations of digital information:

Even when an extremely fine resolution grid is applied to create a discrete digital representation of some analog form; even if our experience of a digital world seems continuous -- it's not. Ultimately there is a 1 or a 0. By its nature, the digital world is discontinuous, so there will always be a gap of some sort in any digital representation.

There are other ways to represent information. But if they're not in binary form, they're not digital in the way we understand the digital today. We may one day have other options -- biocomputers; neoanalog computers. And these in turn may open up new possibilities and new worlds. Today, however, when we peel away the layers of a digital world, strip it down to the equivalent of the flatness of Stella's canvas, we find only the binary nature of digital processes. This is the true limit of the digital world: it cannot represent anything that is not ultimately reducible to either 0 or 1.

In their essay "Load and Run; High-tech Paganism-Digital Polytheism", Timothy Leary and Eric Gullichsen try to explain how the smallest subatomic particles we can detect behave by in a discrete way according to the strange laws of quantum mechanics. As a result, they argue, computer chips and human brains work in very compatible ways, both operating through many discrete binary switches between particle/neuron states:

The universality of 0 and 1 throughout magic and religion: yin and yang, yoni and lingam, cup and wand, are manifested today in digital signals, the two bits underlying the implementation of all digital programs in the world, in our brains and in our operating systems.

Leary and Gullichsen have forgotten, however, that light (energy) does not simply behave purely as quanta, photon particles jumping between discrete quantum states; it also adheres to the strict laws that apply to wave dynamics. Each discrete atomic energy level around a necleus is defined by integer multiples of a continuous analog sin wave cycle as we visualize the electron wobbling in its circular orbit around the atom's nucleus. Life at its most fundamental particles does not simply flip between binary states.

  • What do we do with this information?

  • Who owns the "bit"?

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