Demystifying Information Technology and All Things Cyber - Overview

In recent years several authors have published articles and books in which they make predictions on how IT (information technology) will affect society in the mid to long-term future. Some of these writers claim the advent of digital technology has ushered in a fundamentally new era in human history, and that IT prompts profound new philosophical, ethical, and even religious questions. By contrast, in these topics I do not offer any far ranging predictions, but instead take a deliberately short-term pragmatic view, assessing IT in the ‘here and now’. While the future is far from certain, I believe some commentators are assigning an unfounded mysteriousness to current and short-term-future computing. My goal is therefore to demystify the current state of Information Technology.


Why is IT Seen as Mysterious?

I’m certain there are many factors, but here are a few suggestions:

Information Technology deals with apparently immaterial concepts of information and software. Historically the immaterial has correlated with the spiritual or divine. It’s certainly not ‘ordinary.’

It’s tempting to make the following analogy:

Or put another way:

On a more humorous level, some have noted that in order for lay people to benefit from technology, we need to obtain the services of a technologically-literate ‘priestly class,’ who are in possession of secret-knowledge that allows them to charm computers so that they help rather than hinder - this matches our experience of the religious. However, this theory will probably be short lived, since eight-year olds tend work with IT very well.

The mystical nature of cyberspace is also actively promoted by some of the visionary thinkers and researchers in the field:

What is Information, Exactly?

In recent history there has been an interesting trend toward the ‘reification of information’ - information presented as a third fundamental reality:

Some talk about information being exchangeable with matter and energy, much as matter and energy are related in Einstein’s famous E=mc2.

While it’s certainly true that the concept of information is central to quantum mechanics and other established theories in physics and mathematics (and that quantum mechanics, in turn, is intimately related to microelectronic circuit design), does it deserve this much emphasis? A few go so far as to see computers as somehow special (or even ‘holy’) since they deal exclusively with this fundamental aspect of reality that we call information. Similarly cyberspace - the internet - is a holy space where we might expect to find God, because it deals in the currency of pure information.

I find this quite unconvincing. Why the confusion? I believe the main source is the varied ways in which we use the word information.

Here are a couple of rough definitions:

A] Information: Human-consciousness-level symbols needing a context to give them meaning. For example, the price of an airline ticket or a book.

B] Information: the degree of order or complexity of a system.

Definition B] is one that figures in discussions about mathematics, quantum mechanics, signal to noise ratios in data-sets etc.

These are very different. In fact it’s possible to represent information (type A) in ways that are more or less complex,[6] i.e. in ways with more or less information (type B)!

My point is that information as defined in A] (e.g. a $200 airline tickets to San Jose from Seattle) does not belong in discussions about fundamental aspects of reality.

Therefore, inasmuch as cyber-technologies and the Internet deal with airline tickets or books, this is information as defined in A] and not B]. So, it does not follow that the Internet is necessarily accessing a fundamental level of reality even though it deals with information.

What is Software, Exactly?

Could we say that software is an example of active information? Isn’t it an intangible thing that ‘does stuff’? Doesn’t it follow that where humans have Body + Spirit, computers have hardware + (spirit-like) software, so software is somehow like spirit?

It turns out this is a very tricky question. If you take a classical view of mind, spirit or consciousness as being thoroughly separate from the physical body (a dualist view), then the answer is again an emphatic “No.” In no way is software like spirit, because computers loaded with software are undeniably 100% physical.

(On the other hand, if you take the view that humans are fully represented by our physical state - including our minds - then you could start to draw analogies between software and mind. But for the sake of this discussion, my point is that software is not at all like ‘spirit’ as commonly understood.)

What then, is software? I find a helpful simple definition is ‘instructions for a computer.’ I’m using language here in a very conventional way. I mean instructions much as we refer to ‘instructions for another human’ written on a piece of paper. While such a definition may sound simple, this is deceptive.

Consider the following questions with regard to the ‘instructions for a human’ written with pen on paper:

Do the instructions exist? Are they separate from the ink and paper on which they are written? If so, are they intangible, non-physical entities? If they are intangible, are they spiritual? What disappears if we burn the paper? At what moment during the burning of the paper are the instructions lost? Do they exist if we can guarantee that no one will ever read them?

My point is that while discussions about the reality and status of software can be a little mind-bending and mysterious, these weird questions are not at all unique to software instructions.

As we try and get our minds around what’s going on with ‘instructions’ (either computer instructions, or human instructions) it seems we might want to distinguish between the representation of the instructions, and the instructions once they are ‘loaded’ in their intended ‘reader.’

It’s certainly true that written English instructions only do what they are intended to do once they are loaded into an appropriate storage medium (i.e. the brain) of someone with the ability to accurately interpret the words and act on them. The instructions are in a sense only potentially instructive, only fully actualized when they’ve changed the state of a person. It’s no different with software. The representation of computer instructions on a floppy disk only has its desired effect once it has been loaded into the store of an appropriate computer, and executed. This activity of loading, or reading the representation involves changing the physical (electrical) state of the computer system, much as the mind of a human is changed during the act of reading instructions from paper. The writing stays on the paper. If we wanted to be overly-precise with language, we might also say that the ‘software’ stays on the floppy disk, and describe the programmed computer as having a ‘program-state’:




(human instructions)
Human language


New cognitive/brain state
(the writing is not ‘in’ the brain)

(computer instructions)
Computer language


New program(ed) state
(the software is not ‘in’ the computer)

The difference between a functioning and non-functioning computer is not the presence of an immaterial concept, but the fact that one of them has been configured into a very specific physical state that will determine its functioning. A non-functioning computer by contrast has its memory in a disorderly or otherwise undesirable physical state.

A computer is a physical device that has an awful lot in common with all other machines, even clockwork devices. The distinguishing characteristic of digital computer technology is that it can change its physical state very rapidly, efficiently and reliably. We would do well to remember the first computer - Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine - was not electrical but mechanical. It’s hard to believe, but if we wished, we could produce a hand-cranked Pentium processor made out of wood.

It seems safe to say that today’s IT devices are physical just like looms or windmills, and that a software-programmed-state is a specific physical state, and not at all mysterious, or spiritual.

Postscript: Another Possible Definition of Information:

Information: A physical patternR, configuration or structure notable because of its potentially significant role in the causal future of a physical system.

Example: the sprung or unpsrung state of the hammer on a mouse-trap.

For a definition of software (or ‘program-state’): see above.

For a definition of Genes: see above.

Using this broad definition shows that many systems have a software (or program-state) aspect to them, including devices such as mouse-traps, and that it’s not unique to computer devices.

What Does it Mean to be ‘Digital’?

On a simple level, a digital system is just one that works with discrete states. Digital computers are designed around electrical circuitry that has just two states: fully on and fully off. We typically associate these states with the binary values 1 and 0. Once you have such a setup, you can easily represent richer values - such as the price of a plane ticket - by using the state of a group of on/off memory circuits.

However, all digital systems are physical. If we take physical nature to be essentially ‘analog,’[7] then we need to say that all digital systems are also analog.

So, to be digital is really a design choice, not unlike the choice one would make between clockwork and hydraulics when deciding how to achieve a specific task.

What distinguishes digital systems from all others is that they are designed to reliably interpret analog properties in discrete ways. For example, a bit of memory in a digital system will only be read as ‘on’ or ‘off’ by the reading circuitry because of its electrical design.[8] However, the memory circuit itself will have variable analog electrical characteristics since it’s a physical/analog device - a bit like a battery.

Some see digital systems as special since they deal intimately with ‘pure’ information and absolute states, and wonder if this could mean they are somehow connected to the divine. If this is the case, digital systems might be a place where we would expect to see divine activity. However, since digital systems are designed to operate in a thoroughly deterministic, reliable - even fault-tolerant manner - they are probably the last place we should expect to see such activity.

What and Where is Cyberspace?

Some see cyberspace as literally a new ‘space’ or dimension, and see computers and internet technologies as providing the doorway through which we may access this new dimension of reality. Still others take the internet to be the noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin, and see the internet as formally ‘alive’ and self-propagating, and perhaps even conscious.

Once again, I’m going to disagree with this. As far as I see it, what makes the web go is the interpretations that humans give to the variable glowings of the display devices in front of them. While what I see on the screen may have enormous value for me, even life-transforming value, if you take away the humans, the actual effect of the internet drops to near zero - cyberspace vanishes. For the moment, cyberspace is simply the name for our experience and imagination as we receive information through connected digital devices.

What happens when we interact with information and other people using information technologies is very much the same kind of experience we have when we read a book, see a film, talk on the telephone, or tell stories around a campfire. Human imagination is the most prominent activity. What is dramatically different from previous interaction/communications technologies is the efficiency, reach, speed, reliability and fidelity.

[1] Harper’s Article, 1995

[2] CTNS ‘Science and the Spiritual Quest’ Conference, June 1998.

[3] Cybergrace, p15

[4] Cybergrace, p127

[5] Cybergrace, p135

[6] Using compression, for example.

[7] This is actually a very deep question and up for debate. C.f. quantum states.

[8] It’s not just electrical-digital systems that have this two-state on/off property - a mouse-trap is either sprung, or unsprung, a coin toss is also digital in that it is either fully-heads or fully tails. (While it possible for coins to come to rest on their edge on rare occasions, a setup with a vibrating table would remove this flaw from my example!)