Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Computer Logic Is Not Reality


The digital world is made of the binary digits one and zero. But those digits are theoretical. One medium used to translate theory into reality was punched cards. Theory said there was a hole or not, meaning a one or a zero. In the election of 2000, reality bumped into the infamous hanging chad. Card readers sometimes saw ones, sometimes zeros.

Computer logic, the logic of the digital world, is also built on ones and zeros. In the real world, the physical embodiment of these ones and zeros is not black and white but rather infinite shades of gray. This is the eternal disconnect between theory and reality, idea and action.

Computers, in theory, are not merely logical, they are über-logical, the very epitome of logic. Nothing more logical (with practical application) has ever been created by the human mind. Theory, however, is not reality. The design of computer hardware is not identical to its implementation; the logic of the computer program is not necessarily its actions.

Computer designs are no more reality than engineering drawings are the bridge or blueprints the house. Computer logic is only a plan for action. Like the bridge or the house, the computer’s viability depends on the materials and their construction. Its longevity depends on maintenance, the endless fight against wear.

In the days of room-sized computers, vacuum tubes wore out in hours. The solid-state drives of today’s tablets will last for years. Different storage devices, separated by over a half-century, with a common enemy: heat. Expansion caused by heat inevitably produces wear in all electronics.

The holes in punched cards may or may not be read as ones or zeros. The magnetic coating of discs holds a range of voltages, not always clearly ones or zeros. Every physical manifestation of a theoretical digital construct obeys real world forces, from everyday static electricity to cataclysmic nuclear explosions.

The manufacture, use and maintenance of computer hardware and software are bound by the laws of physics and chemistry—even the speed of light and beyond to quantum mechanics. Hardware and software are designed, planned, and built on logic, but the real world always trumps logic.

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