A Sex Talk for the Computer Illiterate

(Everything You Wanted to Know About the Coming Techno-Apocalypse but Were Afraid to Ask)

Nine-year-old: “Today in science we learned that babies are made when the sperm from the man and the egg from the woman join together, and it grows into a baby.”

Mom: “Yup, that’s it. All you need to know. Glad that’s settled. Want to watch The Voice now?”

Nine-year-old: “But, mom. . . how do the sperm and egg get in the same place? If the egg is inside the woman, and the sperm is in the man, then how does the sperm actually get in there?”

My website was hacked recently, and it prompted my own questions—not just why someone would target my podunk little website and replace it with an image of Kemal Atatürk —but also how likely are hackers to take down entire electrical grids, as Ted Koppel has warned, and will they be able to hack our self-driving cars, or spy on us through our smart fridges, and how does any of this computer stuff work, anyway?

I mean, what the hell actually is digital data? I have these vague images of cellphone signals emanating from towers that never seem close enough to my house for me to get good reception and circuit boards sitting inside hard drives like miniature cities, with miniature Jeff Bridges riding miniature motorcycles around them, and somewhere among all that technology are columns of neon green ones and zeroes scrolling past, like in The Matrix.

But what is data, really? And how does it get in there? If you search the internet for information that puts it in layman’s terms, you might find, as I did, that the explanations aren’t simple enough. I needed the equivalent of “the penis goes inside the vagina,” so I decided to come up with my own version.

Before I break it down for you, let met tell you why I think it’s so important to know this. One glance over to the couch, where my husband is composing emails on his iPad, my eleven-year-old is reading a book on her Kindle and my fourteen-year-old is making funny faces at her phone, Snapchatting I guess, is enough to remind me. Technology has already infiltrated most aspects of everyday life, and the fact is, we’re just getting started. With exponential technologies, from artificial intelligence to virtual reality to the Internet of Everything, we’re on the verge of transformations that seem like they are right out of the movies: computers that learn, nanobots that treat cancer cells and leave the healthy cells alone, brain scans that translate neural activity so others can see what you’re thinking. Shit’s about to get real.

Up until now it has been fine for us to stumble cluelessly through the field of blossoming technology, picking up new devices like magical tulips: look, this one plays music! It’s even still somewhat endearing to be out of step with innovation: Oh sure, I use Facebook, but I just can’t wrap my brain around Twitter! We marvel at how easily our kids navigate new apps and raise our eyebrows when we see babies commandeering their parents’ iPhones. It’s all sort of novel and strange, and even a little scary. But the world is still the real world, with technology injected into it.

What I’m talking about is a future where the world is technology, and we have to inject reality into it.

This is not way off in the future. This is in fifteen to twenty years. This is when your daughter is finishing her residency or walking down the aisle.

They are called exponential technologies because the rate they are developing isn’t following a standard, linear progression. It may seem that way at first, but one day the progress will leap ahead too quickly for us to catch up. As Peter Diamandis explains in his excellent book BOLD, if lily pads growing over a pond are doubling every day, then at some point they will grow to cover half the pond. It may have taken weeks and weeks for that to happen. But what you have to understand is that the very next day after that, the entire pond will be covered. That’s exponential technology.

So now that I’ve gotten your attention (I hope!), here’s what I can offer to help: A simple explanation of how all that digital stuff actually works.

How Data Works

When a One and a Zero love each other very much. . . no, but really, digital data is kind of like the offspring of Adam and Eve, or One and Zero, from which everything else is created. The result is a code, or language, that tells the computer what to do.

All digital information is just a series of ones and zeroes in various order, which spell out the code that computers translate. 01100001 represents the letter A. 01110011 is the letter S. So, write 01000001 01010011 01110011, and you just cursed in binary! Everything can be tranferred into binary, and all those teeny tiny codes are sent over wires, or the internet, as machine language that the computer understands.

But who makes the ones and zeroes in the first place, you ask? Well, the ‘source’ is electricity (if you need to know how electricity works, God help you. I mean, watch this and then come back). But the electricity that is flowing is only made into data, or packets of information, when it is turned on an off by a switch, because the interruption of the flow separates the electricity in little bundles of energy These packets, as I explained earlier, register as on and off/one and zero (I like to imagine Bugs Bunny raising and lowering the switch that signals intermission at the theater, so people keep rushing in and out and trampling Yosemite Sam). When the switch is down, the current flows, and that is represented by a one. When the switch is up, the current is broken, and that is represented by a zero.

So for the color blue, for example, the computer translates the machine language of ones and zeroes and sends an electrical signal to the monitor, which has components made of reactive material, such as liquid crystal, that respond to the varying amount of electricity and make tiny bits of the screen a particular combination of Red, Green or Blue, depending on what number combinations are sent.

The same basic principle applies to the monitor displaying these letters. And that’s how these words got in front of you! Nevermind that these words are themselves symbols that our eyes send to our brains to be decoded. . . that’s about all the bandwidth I have for today.

This is all just a starting point, but I hope it will encourage you to go out and do some investigation of your own. Otherwise, in the near future you won’t just be kind of annoying, like your seventy-year-old aunt who doesn’t know how to get her photos off her phone and onto her computer. You’ll be like someone from the Stone Age who has woken up in a room full of Turkish cyber hackers.

Or, to put it more simply, like someone who never got the sex talk: pregnant, without knowing how you got that way.

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