Tuesday, May 04, 2010

1. Thinking Analog in a Digital World

Fallen stars

Our digital world

We live in a digital world of our making. The pictures we see on billboards and on TV, the music we listen to, the whispers we exchange on mobile phones and the letters and words on newspapers and books we read, have at some point, been reduced to a series of on-off bits to be stored on an iPod, designed, edited and published on the Internet or to be transmitted over great distances. As we spend time in front of our TVs and computers and increasingly rely on mobile phones and social networking applications to interact with our family and friends, a significant portion of our information consumption and exchange has essentially become and exchange of abstract 'bits' of 'on' and 'off' signals representing hypothetical 'ones' and 'zeros'. Of course most of us still do talk to people face to face and can find more delight in watching the sunset on a beach. However, sound waves are made up of discrete molecules and light is made up of individual photons, which - theoretically at least - makes them digital experiences too, but that's for a later discourse.

It is the advent of computers that is widely considered to have triggered our rapid drift into the digital realm. Machines are credited - not unjustly, but rather inaccurately - for starting the 'digital revolution'. However, early in the 17th century, Francis Bacon realised that letters of the alphabet could be reduced to sequences of binary digits. Long before that, the Indian writer Pingala developed advanced binary mathematical concepts to describe prosody (poems). Binary logic as we know it today, is in many ways a tool that could not only simplify and encode numbers but distill even the most complex of our thoughts. We can take it for granted once we are familiar with how high definition video and true surround sound can confuse our senses about what's real and what's not, to enhance our experience of a movie in a deep, rather emotional level. Yet it would have taken a powerful mind for Pingala to realise how complex expressions of thought such as poetry can be encoded and derived almost mathematically using no more than two digits, in an age where there weren’t any powerful computers that could execute or demonstrate his thesis.

The equipment and technology that digitises our creative expressions and words today are based on the much older discovery of binary mathematics. The idea that any number can be represented as a sequence of one or more digits would have been apparent to ancient shepherds, but a systematic counting and arithmetic based on two digits is believed to have been first discovered by Indian mathematicians in the second century BC. It was a pioneering step in a quest spanning close to a million years; to find a deeper underlying order and logic in binary numbers. But I would like to invite you on a journey now, to decipher the more profound and mysterious duality underlying our understanding of the universe.

It is a quest that was born out of the first conscious human thought and continues to this day. Binary mathematics is the primary enabler of the present digital information and communication systems, but it is not merely the language of our machines. Our minds are also binary machines at a very fundamental level. The digital revolution was not a result of the advent of computers, but rather its cause and enabling force. The digital nature of our thoughts not only made the invention of digital machines possible, but a part of the logical evolution of our conscience - made significant by the fact that they are the first primitive examples of tools with which we have externalised our own conscience. The digital revolution actually started when we began to think... when we became sentient beings. It has merely made itself more visible as an extension of our conscience by taking the form of computers, iPods and LED TVs.

Surely, we must be a lot different from computers? Surprising though it may sound, the digital revolution precedes the invention of the computer and binary mathematics. Its origins lie buried in a time far more ancient than Pingala’s delightful insights. It started at the very dawn of human intelligence, when we first learned logic and reason; in a time immemorial. 'Yes' and 'no', 'true' and 'false', 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong' - though contradictory in meaning, can only be understood as the opposite or the absence of the other because the bipolarity of our thoughts and logic is also intimately woven into our vocabulary. It is not a coincidence that these would be the first words we need to understand, when we begin to learn a new language.

Vestiges of the binary origins of our thoughts and reasoning becomes even more conspicuous if we can tune ourselves to notice an underlying duality in the way we try to understand and describe the world and our thoughts and experiences of it. The most fundamental of our perceptions and beliefs are based on juxtapositions of opposite ideas. For example, we appreciate light, relative to our experience of darkness; we revel most in happiness, when we have languished in the depths of sadness. We take for granted that what is beautiful cannot be hideous; that a good person cannot do bad things, because we are wired in our brains to treat each perceptive thought, each idea and judgement as mutually exclusive of its opposite. It seems not only the most complex of our belief systems and emotions, but our basic logic and reasoning which forms the basis of knowledge, is hinged on a set of imperceptible dualities that is made bare in our vocabulary.

This duality in the way we think and the way we form our opinions is naturally reflected in the way we reason. It is still a useful cognitive tool that has formed the foundation of our logic, mathematics and science. In this way, the present digital age can trace its evolution through the strands of primeval logic that enabled the earliest human self conscience that we can still relate to our origins. Perhaps we are still infants in the long path to truly enlightened thought and reasoning, suckling on the first conscious human thought, clinging to the moment when human reasoning and intelligence was born - if ever there was such a moment. Perhaps there is a 'digital' grain in our very make up - to which our collective conscience is just waking up to?