Bits and Bytes
Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way. Proverbs 19:2
I took a computer programming class in college in the 1970’s,. The lone computer at the university was the size of a small house with a fraction of the computing power of our mobile phones today. The computer read our instructions with punch cards, which required entering one precise instruction, i.e., “Start with 10,” on a single card before going to the next precise order on a different card. Our final class project was to write a program so the computer would count down from 10 to 0 by ones. It required 80+ punch cards. The slightest mistake in punching or ordering the cards resulted in a failed project. It was tedious, mind-numbing, and unforgiving work.
Bits and bytes are the building blocks of computer language, then as now. A bit (binary digit) is a single data point, either 0 or 1. There are only two options for a bit – on or off. A byte is a grouping of 8 bits. In a computer’s binary byte code, writing 0, 1, 2 looks like this: 00000000, 00000001, 00000010.
Prior to computers, we had pen and paper, typewriters, and slide rules with which to write and compute. Clearly, computers have provided giant leaps forward in making nearly every aspect of our lives easier and more efficient. In order for a computer to work, however, our information must be converted to a digital format – bits and bytes. Computers operate on a completely dualistic system – something must either be right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, on or off. There is no gray area in a digital language. A bit either has an electrical charge or it doesn’t, and therein lies the problem. No matter how small the space between on and off, there is an in between with an infinite range of intermediate possibilities – possibilities where the spirit inhabits.
While I am far from suggesting a return to our pre-computer days, much has been lost in return for convenience and efficiency. I would term was has been lost as depth of experience. It wasn’t that long ago that even an untrained eye could distinguish between a digitized picture, i.e., a pictures taken on a cellphone (which converts the image into bits and bytes), and a picture taken with a good, film camera. The difference was in the depth of field, color, and contrast. Digital pictures were convenient, but not very representative. Now, with enough pixels (bits and bytes), the untrained human eye cannot tell the difference between a digital and a film picture in most cases. Yet, the difference is there in the spaces the bits and bytes cannot capture.
The situation is similar with sound recordings. The music we hear on the most prevalent sound sources today, reproduce only a small sample of the original sound. The result is usually difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish. The convenience makes it worthwhile for most of us, however, myself included.
Here is my concern in this discussion: Are we becoming blind to the depth of experience we lose for the convenience we gain? Far from suggesting a return to slide rules and typewriters, are there areas where we can distinguish the difference in depth such that the losses do not outweigh the gains? For example, having a digitized church service available on line is a convenience for shut-ins, but the experience is far less than being present in the sanctuary. Listening to a recording of a live musical performance makes the performance more accessible but is usually a poor substitute for actually being present for the performance. Reading a book about love is not the same as actually experiencing a loving relationship. Bits and bytes, like words and phrases, substitute for the depth of the actual experience. The field of Artificial Intelligence, exciting as it is, is still incapable of reading between the on or off options available to each bit upon which it depends.
When we text or email instead of speaking in person, we are essentially converting the spoken word into bits and bytes by losing all of the non-verbal context. In the same way, we sacrifice the depth of a hand-written note for the convenience of a text.
Again, my point is not that our new technologies should be dropped for the old. Rather, it is that we need to be discerning about when and in what situations we use which method. Will we lose something of value by taking the easier, more convenient path? Our important relationships, like our spiritual development, cannot be captured in nor reduced to bits and bytes.
This is the 28th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.
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