Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Why Code Is Important


Modern Industrialized nations have based their societies on technology run by software. This code compiles into digital computer instructions. Digital is made of binary switches (or bits) of ones and zeros.

Code, if not written to respond safely to all possible contingencies, may produce a zero when the computer expects a one, or vice versa. This simple error may halt the computer—or worse.

Digital, due to its binary nature, is inherently brittle: it either works or not—there is no sort-of-works. Unlike analog, which degrades gradually over time, digital (if not programmed for all contingencies) may suddenly and unexpectedly stop.

Compare VCRs to DVDs. Tape stretches but it isn’t very noticeable. Tape breaks but can be easily spliced with very little loss of signal. Merely scratching a DVD can make it unplayable. Everything may appear intact, but it just takes one lost bit.

The programs we depend on daily are also brittle but unlikely to lose bits. Or so we think. A sufficient electromagnetic pulse or EMP (think small nuclear device) will destroy those bits unless your machine is “hardened” as are many military computers.

Once upon a time, dividing by zero would stop a computer cold. Since there were too many ways this could occur, the solution was to have the hardware check every division to make sure the divisor was not zero. If it was, the program—not the computer—was halted and an error message displayed.

A program and its data on our hard drives is inaccessible to other programs that write to hard drives. Those programs are constrained by system software, prevented from writing where they shouldn’t.

This solution depends on correct system software. It is not as safe as hardware trapping division by zero. Programs that write where they shouldn’t, are classed as viruses; they know how to get around system software protection.

These are simple examples of potential problems for programmers. Above, I used the word “contingencies” twice. To grasp the extent of possible contingencies, a programmer must be aware of the total environment in which the code must run.

There will be many different computers, each with a unique hardware configuration. Different CPUs means different instruction sets. Many computers have multiple processors (e.g., quad) requiring multi-threaded code.

Code must run on many different operating systems. Even the same operating system is configured differently according to installed updates, hardware drivers, customization, etc.

Then there’s the problem of many unknown programs running simultaneously or interrupting according to their own needs. Or crashing and interfering with the code. Or the intentional disruption of hackers.

It’s easy to see that code running successfully under all these contingencies is far more valuable to society than code that chooses cleverness over safety. Since digital is inherently brittle, code must be robust. Simpler code is easier to secure than complex.

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