Encoding the Abstract (Part One)

 So I got to thinking today, about the way we look at the world. As the world has gotten more scientific, especially with the advent of computers, there has been a trend towards encoding information into data, that is, into numbers. Mathematicians and math enthusiasts (which, it turns out, exist) like to argue that the universe is essentially comprised of math. Math, they say, governs the operation of the universe, every particle and wave can be described with it. I’m not here to argue that. But, as a writer at heart, a man of subjective abstracts rather than objective, concrete facts, I started to wonder where my place was describing the world when numbers, it was being said, can do that much better.

Why describe what color something is? Why tell you that something, say, “was the color of a rose in full bloom”? Roses are all sorts of colors, and even the red ones vary, and even if they didn’t, the picture in your mind does. Wouldn’t it be easier to say that the object was “FF0033”, the hypertext code for a shade of red? That leaves no ambiguity whatsoever. The car was that color, and that color only. So are numbers better at describing our world? And if so, why?

The reason, at least the reason I feel, is not that math explains our universe better intrinsically, but because math is the method which we have honed to explain our universe. For instance, although that code immediately calls a specific shade of red on a computer, you probably can’t immediately call the image of that color. Giving a comparison works better for you, because you are more familiar with it. But the human mind is a fickle thing, and memories can vary mere seconds after they occur. For instance, did you ever notice how, when you dart your eyes a direction, there’s never motion blur? One instant you’re looking straight ahead, the next you’re looking somewhere else, without having to see the in-between? How is that possible? Well, fact is, you do see the blur. But the instant it ends, your mind takes the picture that it is now getting (that is, the direction you turned to look at) and stretches the picture backwards through your memory to fill the space occupied by the blur. Yeah, your mind straight up lies to you, and edits transition effects into your video feed live. That’s why when you look at a clock, it can sometimes appear to be stopped for a moment, until you’ve stared for a bit. Because your mind stretched the picture of the clock back, so you remember seeing it that way for an extra second. So that said, it makes sense why we have encoded so much data into numbers, which can be stored in unerring format on hard drives and paper. Saying someone arrived for work “a bit late” is ambiguous. Saying they arrived for work “five minutes late” is much more precise. So why is that?

Well, as I said, numbers work for precision, in my opinion, because we have honed them for such. Because we’ve gotten used to it. I can say something is 10 inches long, and that is an absolute fact, which can be observed by anyone else, and will be, in the exact same manner. With one rather important exception: we both need to know what inches are. See, data is still dependent on abstracts on one level or another– it’s the ever-present problem of infinite recursion (such as asking for the definition of the word in a definition of a word in a definition, you have to have starting ground in order to understand anything). We only agree on something being 10 inches long if we agree on what the word “inches” means. Luckily, we’ve agreed on standards, so you and I can grab a ruler and agree on the meaning of the phrase “10 inches”. But if we don’t have a ruler handy, then our definitions of that length, and by extension, the thing the length describes, will inevitably be different. Because we don’t memorize data so much as we memorize sensations. We memorize experiences. This is why it’s easier (and considered more poetic) for me to compare a color for you than to describe it exactly using html. That’s also why, on the other hand, I can’t tell a computer that I want my text to be the color of a rose. Computer has go goddamn clue what the hell a rose is, or what color it would be. Even if I showed it a rose, it wouldn’t know whether to use the color of the flower, or the leaves, or the stem. It doesn’t have the intuition that we possess.

But then how does a computer handle any data at all? How can it make a font a specific height? How can it call a certain color? At some point, the recursion kicks in, and we have to say “an inch is an inch”, so how does the computer comprehend this? Luckily for us, mathematicians’ claims are somewhat inaccurate. A computer can handle such information because of hardware limitations. A computer doesn’t know it’s displaying red, but it knows how to tell a monitor to turn the red pixels in an area up all the way. It doesn’t know what an inch is, but it can display a line a particular number of pixels tall, which, thanks to human programming, can be identified as an inch. It doesn’t know what a second is in an intrinsic way. But it knows how many times its processor clock needs to tick in order for this abstract thing that users call a “second” to have passed. But if it were to lose these precise statistics, or to lose the hardware which facilitated them, it would lose all concept of the measurements themselves.

So then, numbers are more precise, but words describe abstracts more loosely, correct? Well, sort of. See, I don’t believe that numbers are any more precise. We have just honed them to be. Lets fall back on the timeless example of color. If I say something is red, that leaves a pretty wide gap of shades to choose from. FF0033, on the other hand, is a very specific shade, and can be no other shade. But the fact is, there are words besides “red” to describe a color. The words we tend to use to describe colors are like the 8-pack of crayons, or the Roy G. Biv (although, honestly, who even uses indigo?). But there are a billion words to describe colors. The problem is, we haven’t all memorized them. If I call something aubergine, would you know what color it was (it’s a plum-like color, named after eggplants)? Probably not, because you weren’t raised to associate colors that specific with meanings. There’s no real reason to. But the coding is there. It’s possible to use a single word to describe a color in the same way that it’s possible to use html code to describe it. The difference is, all computers recognize html code, most humans don’t recognize all of the equivalent colors’ names. But there’s no reason not to. For instance, if I told and interior decorator I wanted my walls painted 2B0B30, he would have no clue what the hell I was smoking. If I said I wanted them aubergine, then he, presumably, (given his experience in the field) would know what color to buy, and be able to suggest complimentary colors, again, with specific shades, but in English, not html.

So is there a way, or reason, to ever code data into sensations, rather than sensations into data? Well, that’s two questions, so hold on a sec. For the first question, of course! We already do. Just as aubergine can be encoded into 2B0B30, 2B0B30 can be encoded into aubergine. That is, in fact, what happens when a web browser encounters the code “2B0B30”, and, instead of simply displaying that, instead displays the color it corresponds with. You perceive facebook as blue not because the code itself is blue, but because the code contains the html version of blue, and your browser translates it before it gets displayed (the shade, btw, is 3B5998). The reason the color’s code is what it is has to do with the fact that monitors display colors using three different shaders on each pixel: green, red, and blue. Using two digits apiece, and hexadecimal coding, a six digit number offers 255 brightnesses of each color, 00-FF. So 000000 is black (with all of the pixels off) and FFFFFF is white (all on). There’s no reason we can’t use this hardware gimmick to encode colors back to digits. The same is true for converting text into ASCII, then to binary, rather than doing the opposite (which is what a word processor does).

But the second question: is there a reason to? At the moment, not really. Although we easily could save any string of numbers as an assortment of pixels of various colors, or as gibberish text, other than for rudimentary and insultingly easy cryptography, at the moment there’d be no reason to. The data is more useful, and takes up just as much space, as the sensation it could be coded as. But let’s fast-forward to the future. The far future. Specifically, the singularity. I’ll get more into the singularity in another blog post, but lets explore a single version of the singularity now. Specifically, the idea of connecting our minds up to computers. This would be game-changing on a planetary level. We would be able to upload and download our minds. We could surf the web, but not using a computer screen. Literally walk down a street with our websites lined up in doorways, or however we chose to represent it. We could upgrade ourselves. We could learn new tasks instantly (think about Neo downloading kung-fu, or Trinity learning to fly a helicopter in The Matrix. Same concept). Death would not be a problem (although our physical bodies would theoretically still age and die (assuming we hadn’t fixed that as well) our minds could exist on hard drives, could still mingle freely with others on the web, and could in theory control robotic bodies in order to allow us to continue simulating a physical presence long after our bodies are dust. (Also, theoretically, one could hack and “possess” another’s body, but that’s a talk for another time)). But lets talk about this singularity, as it relates to our question.

If we can store the human experience on hard drives (as is assumed in this future), then theoretically we can do the opposite– that is, set up file systems in our brains and store computer files there for safekeeping (and possibly for use. Imagine an mp3 or movie encoded and stored in your brain in such a way that you could remember it perfectly, and play it whenever you wanted). It would seem like it would be impossible to take memories off of our brains and put them on hard drives until we understood memories enough that we could also add them. So in that case, encoding sensations becomes very real. Want to feel like you’re in a hot tub? Download the sensation, then remember it. The computers would theoretically still store the sensations as digital data (as we’ve become quite good at it, and will have become exponentially better by this supposed future), and would be exported by some codec into a sensation that your brain could interpret. This is important, because this is pretty wholly what makes this situation so neat, and so far flung– the ability to translate from our brain’s resident coding and file system into a digital one, and back. We, at the moment, have next to no idea how our mind encodes memories. We know it has to do with connections developing between neurons, and we know that it has to do with memory associations (okay, so we know a bit more than that, but compared to our knowledge of the inner workings of computers, we know next to nothing).

And it would be important to do this encoding. Transferring the files without encoding them would make them meaningless strings of numbers (you would remember 2B0B30, but would have no recollection of the color attached to it). This is interesting, because it opens up some interesting theorizing on how we would use the brain as a hard drive.

As I’ve said, computer files are just raw data, and raw data is meaningless and forgettable to the human brain (at least most humans. Some people have a peculiar knack for data over abstract ideas, for instance, the people who can easily memorize Pi to 200 digits, or the “human calculator” type of people). Forgettable data is pretty much useless for storing in the human brain, as it would easily become forgotten (fairly similar to the phenomena of data becoming corrupted nowadays). But if you turned it into a sensation, it could be remembered much more easily. (I don’t remember the date or time of a particular event in my past, but I remember what deodorant I was wearing) This is obviously useful in the storage of sensations themselves, but is also an interesting prospect for storing raw data, using your brain as a flash drive. For instance, take a spreadsheet or a database or webpage or program, something that your brain wouldn’t be able to conceive a sensation for. You could take the raw data, encode it into a sensation (even one that had nothing to do with the file at hand) then burn it to your cerebral hard drive. For instance, turn the entire thing into hexadecimal, split it into groups of six, and remember it as a series of colors, or a picture consisting of those colors in that pattern. Then find a picture that looks similar to that picture. Now, if you recall the similar picture, you can recall the encoded picture, and copy-paste it back onto a computer. This would essentially mean that I could keep a copy of Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 stored away in my head all of the time, so I always had it with me. Then I could just load it back onto a computer, and play it, just like we use flash drives for today.

Another use, and another interesting use at that, would be storing sensitive data. You could encode the launch codes for the USSR’s nuclear missles into a series of colors or scents, load them into an operative, and the operative himself wouldn’t be able to give the codes. He would only know the sensations associated with the codes. But then, of course, you could hook him up to a computer once he’s been safely sprung from the USSR, and translate the sensations back into data, and BOOM, instant launch codes (the BOOM pun was only halfway intentional). And he would have no idea what the codes were, unless he hooked himself up to a computer and decoded the sensations himself. Hopefully the data would still have the standard encryptions we use today. Also, once the code was removed, you could theoretically delete the sensations, and he wouldn’t be able to remember them, thus meaning that he could never decode them himself. I’ll get more into this next time, it’s 2:00 in the morning right now…

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About J. K. Gray

A romantic, a thinker, a lover, and a blogger.
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