If you ask a computer tech how your computer plays digital music, you’ll likely get a complicated answer using words like lasers, photo cells, decoders, encoders, and the such. When your eyes roll into the back of your head, the tech abruptly concludes his explanation with the common phrase, “Actually, it’s all just zeros and ones.” To which you respond, “Well of course! That clears things up.”
How is it possible that everything digital in our lives — be it movies, music or photos — can be composed of just zeros and ones?
The answer is just like the technology itself: Both complicated and simple. But don’t worry, it’s mostly simple.
I remember at sleep-away camp that my best friend and I slept in adjacent bunk houses. At night we would take out our flashlights and use Morse Code to have secret conversations, mostly about girls. If you don’t remember, Morse Code is a language, or code, by which letters are represented by combinations of short and long bursts.
For example, the letter A is : short-long. The number 1 is: short-long-long-long-long. Morse Code is genius because it reduces 26 letters and 10 numbers down to combinations of just two signals – short and long. We both learned Morse Code so we could “decode” the flashes of light and have a secret conversation.
This language may seem archaic by today’s standards, but our digital world of zeros and ones has a lot in common with Morse Code.
As we said earlier, all the information on our computers (music, photos, videos, programs, email…) is composed of zeros and ones. These zeros and ones live on the computer’s hard drive. However, instead of just one code, like Morse Code, our computer understands and uses many different codes. There are codes for video, audio, word documents and everything else your computer does. When the computer uses the music code it turns zeros and ones into music. When it uses the video code, it turns zeros and ones into video.
Let’s say you want to listen to the song, “One” by Three Dog Night. (Since we are discussing numbers, let’s use a song about a number for this example.) You open your music program and then click on that song. Next, your computer locates the area on the hard drive containing the zeros and ones of your music library. Since you are using your music program, the computer knows to use the music code to read those zeros and ones. Using that code, the computer translates those zeros and ones into a specific collection of tiny bursts of electricity. That specific collection of electricity is sent to your computer speakers making them vibrate in a specific way. When your computer speakers vibrate, they make sound; and this particular vibration would be the sound of the song , “One.”
Bet you didn’t think it was actually going to be that simple! Yep our whole digital world is made up of zeros and ones. I used to listen to the lyrics in the song, “One” and agree that one is the loneliest number, but now I feel kind of sorry for the number 2. Can you imagine being so close to digital immortality?