What Is "Digital" Anyway?

We are living in a digital world, so to speak; each year we see more and more products using digital technology. So, what is "digital", what does that mean? I'm going to try to keep this short - and not strictly accurate - as I realize most folks glaze over on this kind of topic. Even so, I think it helps to at least have a sense of what's going on. Okay, remember the old Westerns, where the telegraph operator would send a message down the line to warn of an impending train robbery? He could send a readable message just by tapping on a simple switch and sending a bunch of clicks along a wire using Morse Code. Digital is sort of like Morse code.

The digital method of representing data (numbers, music, video, the Internet - whatever) uses groups or patterns of ones and zeros. That's all the computers "know" - the signals running around in them are combinations of ones and zeros. The millions (or billions) of transistors inside modern computer processors act like incredibly small switches - either closed (representing "on" or "one") or not (representing "off" or "zero"), similar to the switch pad on the old Morse telegraph shows above. This on/off method is referred to as "Binary"  - you can see an example of how the Decimal numbers 1 through 10 would be represented in Binary.

Smartphones, tablets, computers, digital watches (remember those) and anything else that uses some kind of digital technology are all at heart just a bunch of teeny-tiny electronic switches "clicking" on and off. The data represented by these patterns is moved around and manipulated by the software to do whatever is needed - make a sound, show something on a screen, add up columns on a spreadsheet.

It's not a perfect (or even strictly accurate) analogy as I said, but I hope you can follow the logic of how a series of clicks or beeps can represent information (letters and words), and extrapolate from that to how a bunch of little electronic switches inside a computing device can be made to represent and manipulate all the information we seem to take for granted these days.

File:International Morse Code.svg
Image courtesy Wikipedia

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