bit [bit] noun 1. A single, basic unit of information, used in connection with computers and information theory. Abinary digit.
Modern society is ruled, dominated, and slavishly beholden to one of mankind’s most simple machinations: The binary digit. Whether it is a flash of light, surge of electrons, or rug held over a smoky fire, the bit merely represents on or off, and yet it underpins almost every facet of human life. Without bits and bytes, almost anything that is more complex than opening a window or taking the trash out would be impossible.
Without bits, your computer would not work. Heck, without bits the equipment used to make your computer wouldn’t work — your computer would simply cease to exist. Without bits, you wouldn’t be able to make telephone calls, or surf the web on your phone. Without bits your house’s heating system wouldn’t work (and neither would the timer on your oven, or your Tivo DVR). Bits and bytes are the basis for modern banking, the stock markets, television, and of course the internet.
Binary is the underlying language by which modern humans interact with the world. We might usehigher-level languages such as English or Chinese or C++, but when it eventually comes down to transmission across a network or controlling a machine, it’s all binary. When you IM a friend, your words are encoded into bits, squirted across a network, and then decoded back into words. Ditto telephone calls, SMS, and email. When you tap the brake or accelerator in your car, your foot’s movement is translated into a stream of binary bits that control an array of motors, pumps, and actuators. When you click Print in Word, your document — words, images, formatting and all — israstered as a dumb bitmap and sent to your printer.
Perhaps more chillingly, binary is also the language by which computers and machines communicate, often autonomously. Many robots, such as the pork ham deboner or Petman, are primarily governed by sensory feedback, which always boils down to bits and bytes. To take a more common example, even your home computer has a huge number of system processes that constantly communicate using binary, often without any human interaction.Stuxnet, the virus that reportedly damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment program, was only possible because most of the world’s industrial machines are controlled by SCADA computer systems, which of course solely operate and communicate using bits.
Our reliance on bits grows every day. It was only a few years ago that TV (and cinema!) was predominantly analog, and now it’s almost entirely digital: Free-to-air digital TV, DVDs, Netflix, Hulu, Tivo, cable, satellite, 5K Red cameras; it’s all digital. Radio is moving slower, but eventually it too will make the jump. Even the printed word — the technology that bootstrapped this scientific, high-tech world that we live in — is going digital, thanks to the Kindle and iPad.
Your household probably still has a lot of analog equipment — taps, door locks, toasters — but with digital thermostats, smart appliances, automation, multi-room sound systems, and blanket WiFi, digital is definitely making inroads. Homes aren’t rebuilt very often, so it will take time for digital bits to fully usurp their clunky, rusted, whirring, analog ancestors, but eventually your house will just be another node on the internet. If you look at offices, shops, and other commercial spaces that are constantly rejuvenated, you can already see automatic faucets, automatic doors, digital displays and billboards, and myriad other binary-powered devices.
In short, bits are incredibly important, and will only become more so. It stands to reason, then, that whoever controls the transmission, storage, and computation of binary data would also be very important.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the PC market, where manic competition has vied for supremacy since the ’70s, and has recently been redoubled with the emergence of internet portals, smartphones, and tablets. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to be the focal point of your binary existence is the lifeblood of companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Then there’s the continuing development of larger and larger hard drives; the very rapid growth of the flash memory industry; and barely a week goes by without the launch of a new interconnect like Thunderbolt or through-silicon-via, or a group of researchers breaking a wired or wireless transmission speed record.
It’s a little bit humbling when you stop to think about it, but our digital lives — from driving a car to checking Facebook to watching Fringe — are constructed from just two numbers: 0 and 1. Pushing the gas pedal and posting an emo status update are as disparate as it gets, but they’re both performed by transmitting a long stream of binary digits.
It is this universality that imbues binary with such power: There’s absolutely nothing to stop you from using the same network for any digital device. Take USB, for example, which allows you to connect multiple devices to a computer over a single pair of copper wires. We usually only wire up high-tech devices with USB, but Boeing you could just as easily use USB as the central network in a fly-by-wire airplane. If you really wanted, you could connect an Xbox, some game pads, and an aircraft’s controls to the same network — it’s all just bits.
Cable and cell networks are also a good example. Cable TV started off as just that — a network of coaxial cables carrying analog TV signals. Over time, the networks switched to digital, and thus became a viable pipe for any binary data. It’s now common to receive TV, internet, and telephone over a single copper pair (or optic fiber, as the case may be). Cellular networks started off as analog and voice-only (1G), but as soon as they made the switch to digital (2G GSM) and then packet-switching (3G, 4G LTE) they began squeezing more and more over the air: SMS, MMS, video calling, internet access, and, well, just about any other digital service. It’s all just bits. Other wireless topologies exist, such as satellite and infinite-capacity radio vortexes, but due to low throughput, short range, and high transmission power, these all play second fiddle to fiber for the bulk, backbone transmission of binary.
Eastern Telegraph Co. (British Empire) cable network in — 1901!
Fiber is the undisputed king of bits. Just look at the billion-dollar fiber optic cables that are about to being laid in the Arctic Ocean — and these are just three of the hundreds of fiber optic cables that already wrap the world in a web of high-speed, low-latency connectivity. In these cables, small cores of just a few dozen glass fibers carry the bulk of the world’s binary data. TV, radio, multi-player Call of Duty, encrypted intelligence and military missives, lectures broadcast by universities, terabytes of data from the Large Hadron Collider — it’s all just bits, and it all travels at the speed of light along glass fibers that are hundreds of miles long and yet only the width of a human hair.
At some point we will need to transmit binary data across the Galaxy Network (Galnet) to far-off space ships and planets, and unless we work out a way to communicate using quantum entangled particles (or neutrinos?), wireless will eventually usurp fiber.
For the time being, then, whoever owns the cables owns the bits, and whoever owns the bits owns the world. It’s a little bit worrying when you consider that almost every cable in the world is privately owned — including national fiber and telephone networks — but when you bear in mind that bits are universal and can be transmitted using technologies as low tech as Morse code or cups-and-string, you really have nothing to worry about.
What you should worry about, though, is the inexorable march of every technology from analog to digital: From mechanical clocks, to quartz movements; from analog tuning knobs, to digital receivers; from paper and pen, to screen and keyboard. Sometimes, late at night, I try to predict the next technology that will fall victim to binary. There aren’t many analog things left — and really, short of heading into the wild to set up some kind of tribal, hyper-Luddite civilization, there isn’t anything you can do about it.