Dec 10 2022
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3)
Opposites carry an immense amount of power, though their ubiquity often lets us overlook them, or otherwise leads us to see them as nothing more than two inevitable poles, static structures from which nothing new can be derived. There’s the Good, and the Bad, the Abel and the Cain, the orthodox and the heretical — all provided with the subtext that we should strive towards the former, even though the latter has a mysterious and seductive pull — but what’s so special about these two extremes? What else can be said about the totally good and the totally bad?
For one, without opposites, we wouldn’t have computing. The bit is the most basic unit of information, often expressed by a one or zero, but it is by no means exclusive to the digital world. John Tukey was a mathematician who was working at Bell Labs, named for that Alexander Graham Bell, who had obtained a patent for his telephone seven decades earlier (MacLeod 12-13). There, Tukey coined the word “bit” as a portmanteau of “binary information digit”, anticipating its importance early on in a world where computers were still hulking, unwieldy machines that ran on punch cards (Shannon 406). Its vernacular definition — that of “a very small amount of something” — provides us with all the intuition necessary to understand it. Go any smaller than a bit, and you will find it impossible to convey anything at all; imagine a world in which you could only respond with “yes”. Without a “no” to lend it its affirmative meaning, “yes” becomes a blank syllable void of any real content. The reliable bit gives us two choices, nothing less and nothing more: it can either be on or off, affirmative or negative, a one or a zero. This is all we need.
Christian cosmogony describes the beginning of all things as a dark vacuum without expression or form: a “zero”. When God provides light, he introduces a “one”, and the very concepts of information and meaning are birthed alongside the light. The Gospel of John begins with this sentence: “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1). In the original Ancient Greek of the New Testament, “Word” is written as Λόγος, or Logos, a complex word that we can loosely translate anything from “order”, to “logic” or “reason” (Symbolism in the Gospel of John). My understanding, however, is that the Gospel of John isn’t speaking of a literal word so much as it is describing the first known bit — and the file that contains this portfolio of essays is made up of approximately twenty nine thousand of them.
[...] Again, the domain of bits extends far beyond the circuitry of electronic devices, although their technological connotation may be hard to shake. Bits don’t intrude into our lives from motherboards and wires; they have been there before us, before John Tukey, since the capital-B Beginning. In sum, in spite of their elementary nature, it turns out that they can afford us an unexpected amount of nuance. The reinforcement and degradation of opposites, of bits — solitary or accumulated, and at all scales — are what make up our cognition, our actions, and our entire world.