Recently, there has been a huge increase in humanity’s ability to communicate with one another. And by recently, I mean very, very recently. For most of human history, the only way a single individual could pass information to any other single individual, or group of individuals, was with spoken words.
Words store and emit information. This emitted ‘information beam’ doesn’t just magically come out of the word, though. The beam needs an energy source.
Take the example of a single word printed on a piece of paper. The paper is laying face up on the ground, outside, on a clear sunny day.
Now, follow a beam of light from the sun. When light strikes the part of the paper that the word is on, energy from the sun is transferred into the word. Due to the physical properties of both the pigment used to make the word, and the substrate that the word is printed on, some of the energy from the sun is reflected.
After being reflected by the word, the sun’s energy now has the word superimposed onto it. This reflected beam of energy provides a pathway for the word to move through space at the speed of light.
If you are having a hard time wrapping your mind around this, then try this. Get as close as you can to a word. Do you feel the information coming from it? As long as you aren’t close enough for the word to be out of focus, the answer is yes. Now, move a little further away from the word, still feel that information? As long as you aren’t too far away to be able to make out the letters, the answer is yes.
This example demonstrates the beam-like nature of the information stored in a word by showing that the information is able to be captured from many positions in space, not just the position of the word itself.
When you speak, something similar happens. Energy from the food that you had previously eaten is used to vibrate the air. This vibration imparts the words information onto the air and it propagates through space at the speed of sound.
As you can see above, various sources online make it pretty clear that humans, as we know ourselves today, have been using spoken words since we, well, the beginning.
The problem with speaking is that you do it once, and boom! The information is gone. It doesn’t stick around for long. It travels at 343 meters per second from the source and by the time it’s more than a few meters away, its energy level is too low to be detected by a human. Speaking words is an ability we have had for at least 50,000 years.
The Sumerians came up with this neat thing called writing. Note that this was less than 5000 years ago. On the grand scale of things, I would say that’s relatively recent. We starting writing things down only 10% ago.
A written word is constantly emitting a beam of information. The person that put the word there does not have to be present. They dont even have to be alive. In fact, the word can be copied and distributed to large groups.
Then, just a few thousand years ago, we invented moveable type. This enabled us to easily copy words. The ability to copy words on large scale really changed everything. Now, one person could copy information from their mind, store that information in words, and then send many copies of those words out into the world. Those words’ resulting beams of information could then be projected onto, and therefor received by, hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people all at once.
This was only a couple thousand years ago, and I would definitely say that was pretty recent. So basically, we invented moveable type 4% ago.
At this point in the story, humanity’s ability to communicate person to person(s) has gone from a short range, single moment of information flow to a practically infinite range, continuous, flow of information. That’s cool and all, but we are still limited to words. Words, although extremely powerful, have inherent limitations.
For example, words cannot be used to describe a color. Don’t believe me? Describe this with words:
You can’t. Don’t feel bad, though, no one can. It’s impossible. Words don’t carry enough of the right type of information to describe a color.
You know that’s yellow because you can see it. When you think of, see, or hear the word ‘Yellow’, you are only able to visualize it because you have seen it before and you were told that that’s yellow.
No amount of any words in order, in any language could ever describe yellow to a blind person. It’s simply not possible.
Think about what I just did there when I showed you that yellow rectangle. I communicated with you in a way that is so advanced, that you can’t even describe it. Literally. And I did so from this room in Kentucky. Almost instantly. By just moving my fingers the right way. For free.
Well, almost free. The point is that today, an individual with no resources other than a common $20 smartphone and McDonald’s Wi-Fi connection can update a website that anyone else (or everyone else) in the world can see. Almost instantly, for next to nothing.
That is the world that we live in, today. Now, just how long have we had access to that?
As you can see, it was not that long ago. In fact, there are many, many people still alive today that remember a time when no one at all could do that. In fact, I was born in 1987, so I’m old enough to remember when it was not common-place to have access to the internet. This was only 0.05% ago.
Really, really think about that. If you compress our time on earth into one day, that was only 43 seconds ago. We suddenly have such pervasive and powerful forms of communication, and we are the only ones that have ever had access to this. The vast majority of all humans that ever lived could not even begin to fathom the ability we have to exchange information.
And let me tell you something, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a GIF is worth at least 1.2 million. Remember, I could describe the wavelength of the light we call yellow, and talk day and night about the amplitude and phase of the massless photons that carry it. I could go on and on about it and you would still have no clue what yellow looked like.
Much in the same way, I could describe the above GIF to you in every way I possibly could with words, and you will never feel what it makes you feel when you see it. That is, unless you saw it before and you knew which one I was talking about. But that’s cheating.
Of course I can’t just sit at some box and punch in some numbers and the information just gets distributed to any and everyone. We have a complex web of systems of connections all with their own sets of rules that generally follow basic, agreed upon standards to deliver this information.
This web of systems is comprised of both hardware and software. The hardware provides a physical channel in which the information can flow, and the software controls how it flows. Things have gotten so complex that there are now multiple different hardware and software systems, each with their own unique spin on communication and we have access to all of them, all at once.
We have YouTube and Facebook. Twitter and Instagram. We’ve got email, USB 3.1, and UDP packets. Also on the information exchange menu is IRC, DTMF tones, and Reddit. Pick one, pick em’ all, pick 1/100th of 1 and you have thousands of times more communication capability than everyone that came before you.
We have gone as far as subdividing these exchanges of information into groups within groups. And that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. Using this basically magical form of totally free, easy to access flow of information, myself and hundreds of other people interacted today about our memories of the evolution of the flow of information.
Winamp was a lightweight, but powerful music player for Windows. Back in the day, you couldn’t play MP3’s on a computer without getting some sort of extra software. Operating systems didn’t support it. Thats how most people found Winamp. They used pre-google search techniques to find a way to play MP3s. My situation was a little different.
I only had a pair of unamplified Polk Audio speakers. I had been playing MP3’s on my computer with Real Player but the volume was too low. So, I did what any reasonable kid in the 90s would do, I went on Ask Jeeves and searched for ‘Windows Amplifier’. I assumed to not have any luck, but there it was, right there at the top. Winamp. I downloaded it and installed it. And sure enough, the easy to use, color coded graphic equalizer was right there front and center.
When I was a kid, Winamp let me trade quality for volume. Even after distorting the audio by cranking up the amplitude of all the frequencies, it was still so much better than a tape, and finally, loud enough to enjoy.
Winamp let me do something that I had not ever been able to do before. I could listen to any music that I wanted now, without needing a low quality tape (the loses quality every time you play it) or an expensive, fragile CD.
A mouse is a way to get information into a computer. The serial connection James is talking about is actually pretty amazing. Sure, its been replaced with USB and Bluetooth these days, but guys, those are just faster, more complex serial connections. Remember. The S in USB stands for serial.
A 9600 baud serial connection is capable of performing a transfer operation 9600 times in one second. In most cases, 9600 is the slowest that you will find any serial connection clocked at. Think about that. In one second, that antiquated information method could send information a rate of nine thousand six hundred times per second, 1 bit of information at a time. The fact that anything can do anything 9600 times a second is pretty damned amazing, and for all practicle purposes, that’s where serial speeds start.
A modem just uses Frequency-Shift Keying modulation to send those bits over voice-channels. A telephone modem is a serial to audio adapter. Instead of just sending a plain electrical signal as COM ports did, though, modems did it with different tones. Thats why everyone remembers what the above sequence of images sounds like.
The Sound Blaster 16 was a family of add-in sound cards that were produced by a company called Creative Technology. They were used to convey audio information. They used information transfer standards such as PCI and ISA to communicate with the rest of the computer.
These days, you get audio from a tiny chip on the main board. Depending on whatever information distribution platform you are using, audio may be generated in software and come directly from the CPU itself without even requiring an additional chip.
VESA was an information transfer standard that came out during the 486 era. You see, in the 90s, there was a problem in the computer industry. The ISA information transfer standard was starting to show its age. It could only transfer 8.33 Megabytes per second. By that time, computers had become powerful enough to process more information than the ISA bus was capable of transferring.
Now lets just break this down, for a moment. 8.33MB per second. Well. There are 1024 kilobytes in a megabyte, and there are 1024 bytes in a kilobyte. So, the ISA bus could transfer information at a rate of 8,734,638.08 bytes per second. Now, consider the fact that there are 8 bits in a byte, and a bit is a single piece of information. Thats 139,754,209.28 pieces of information. Per second. And it was too slow. Slow enough to need to be replaced.
Enter the VESA bus.
The original Duke Nukem was a side-scrolling platform shooter developed by Apogee Software. It featured a foul-mouthed protagonist and over-the-top bad-assness. It was super popular in the early 90s, and it was many a Child’s first experience in the joy of massacring digital representations of people. Some years later, they made a follow up to the original game series, but it took forever.
By today’s standards, acoustic coupler modems are convoluted and slow, but if you think about it, they are elegant solutions to a problem. We had an existing telephone network and now a way to send much more information over it. But not a lot of computers had a way of interfacing with it. Well, some time around 1966, John van Geen decided to solve that problem. He had a simple idea. Make a phone to computer adapter. He did just that. A microphone and a speaker that were shaped in such a way that you could place a standard telephone handset into it and walla, you are connected.
I could write an entire article about MySpace. But honestly, I don’t even think I need to. We all remember MySpace and we all remember Tom. Many issues plagued the company, and Facebook showed up with a better way of doing things at the right time. In fact, if MySpace handled things internally, Facebook may have never become popular and would have faded into digital obscurity.
Minesweeper was a game that has shipped with just about every copy of Windows. Almost everyone has played it, and for most of the time spent playing that game, they had no idea how to play.
They didn’t know what the numbers meant and they didn’t have any idea why they sometimes blew up. I finally figured out what the flags were for like 15 minutes ago.
Floppy disks were a marvel of modern science and manufacturing technology at the time. And if you think about it, while old, slow, and unreliable by today’s standards, Floppy Disks and their associated drives are actually quite amazing.
We humans figured out a way to store over 8 million pieces of information on a round ferro-magnetic disk encased in a square, plastic container using precisely timed pulses of electro-magnetic radiation. Hats off to humanity for that bit of information storage technology.
These are just some of the amazing moments that I shared with a group of hundreds of total strangers. The common ground that we all share is the memories of the struggles that we faced, and joys that we had, in the sharing, exchange, and distribution of information.