Bits Are Bits

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 1994

Bits are everywhere these days. Piles of old floppy disks litter my workroom. I have no idea what is on them anymore, but I'm afraid to throw them out. I keep buying new ones because it is easier than erasing the old ones. I do the same with my hard drives. Every time I upgrade I save the old drive somewhere. You never know when you're going to need those old megabytes.

My living room and car are also becoming dumping grounds for old bits. Hundreds of gigabits are stacked in neat little plastic packages containing audio compact disks. There are a lot that I never play anymore, but I can't throw them out after having paid so much money for them. They make nice trophies.

Now that my computer has gone multimedia I am beginning to save CD-ROMs. I believe that they contain fantastic material, but have not actually had the time to confirm this belief. In any event, the disk jackets display marvelous pictures.

The sheer magnitude of my bit archive impresses me. I can't wait until the telephone and television are digital and I am hooked into the information superhighway. Everything important in life will be simply an assortment of bits -- voice, music, movies, data, and even money. My ones and zeros will express my personality and worth.

The wonder of it all is that these bits are the smallest, most anonymous, most elusive entities in the universe. Bits weigh nothing, occupy no space, obey no physical law, can be created spontaneously from nothingness, and can be endlessly replicated. Each bit in itself is the merest quantum of the information age, yet taken together all of those little ones and zeros are acting as if they were the most important force on the planet.

The power and the paradox of bits is that they can be either infinitely malleable or resolutely indestructible. If you want processing, put all the bits in the electric blender and throw the switch. Whirr! Out come new bits, presumably related in some complicated fashion with the original, now departed, bits. But if you want indestructibility, then a bit is forever. Unlike Humpty-Dumpty in the analog world, bits can be restored to perfection. For example, if Michaelangelo had shown the foresight to have digitized his painting of the Sistine Chapel, then we wouldn't be arguing today about what the colors are supposed to be. If Enrico Caruso's voice had been digitized, its unchanging echoes would resound today. When the world crumbles, the bits will still be there.

The Library of Congress is now beginning the task of digitizing its collection. They will soon have the biggest pile of bits on the planet. On hearing of this plan, a questioner asked whether it would then be quite easy to rewrite history. For example, a simple global change command could be used to substitute 'Eurasia' for 'Oceania', so that Winston Smith's job in Orwell's 1984 would be made easy. That is the malleability view of digitization. On the other hand, digital signatures and message integrity codes could freeze the history bits in their pristine form, thereby protecting the biases of the original authors. If you want info-perpetuity, the bits will oblige.

Of course, the bits may be forever, but the medium in which they are recorded is quite a different matter. The physical world seldom deals in perpetuity. As a case in point, the 1970 US. census is recorded in a format that can be read by only two computers in the world. One is in Japan; the other is in the Smithsonian Museum. The physical recording medium and format come and go. The bits are still there, but they become inaccessible. Makes you appreciate paper.

When I reflect upon these malleable and indestructible quanta of information, I sometimes remember fondly the appealing and simplistic world of physics that I learned in high school. Electrons, protons, and neutrons made up everything, and the world was modeled as a billiard table. "Eight ball in the corner pocket," I would say to myself while calculating some physical interaction.

Now the physical world is all muddled up. I read the other day that experimental evidence for the last quark had been achieved. Actually, I did not know that one was missing, because I've lost count of all the strange particles that seem to exist these days. I lament the loss of that billiard table model, and this has set me to wondering about bits too. Maybe they aren't so simple either. Maybe bits have associated or hidden properties, and are really made of smaller info-quarks.

I started musing about the hidden properties of bits after a meeting that brought together telecommunications people and content people. The content people make the bits, while the telecomm people use the motto, "You call, we haul." To a telecomm person all bits are the same. After all, a bit is a bit. With the digitization of media it doesn't matter whether a bit represents speech, data, or video; they're all the same. What could be different about one bit from another?

It turned out that the content people were angered at this attitude. They argued that all bits are not created equal. One content person pointed at another. "My bits are better than his bits," he shouted. "My bits are more valuable, more carefully crafted, and more individualized. His bits are misleading and poorly wrought. How dare you treat all bits as equal! Only a network centrist, telephone-head could take such a position."

Even in the network itself I have my doubts about the equality of bits. At a switching node the bits compete for joining queues. One bit raises its hand. "I know that I look like all those other bits," it says, "but I must get through. I'm part of a television picture, and if I don't arrive in exactly ... (the bit checks its wristwatch) ... 3 milliseconds, then the picture will break up. This bit next to me ... (the bit points disparagingly) ... is email. It has all day for delivery. We're really different, you know."

To add to the confusion, neighboring bits will carry different prices. It will probably be like airline seats. Video bits will have to be cheap. If they are priced like voice bits, then no one will be able to afford video. Maybe there will be frequent flyer miles and weekend discounts for bits that qualify. So you see, bits really do have different personalities and different needs. Maybe they are in fact composed of info-quarks.

So is it true that a bit is a bit? I'm not sure, but whatever they may be, I sure have a lot of them!

Robert W. Lucky