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Crossing the boundary: analogue universe, digital worlds
Crossing the boundary: analogue universe, digital worlds

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5.2 A conundrum about meaning

SAQ 19

Look at the following set of binary numbers:

00011010 00100011 10001001 10011100 10100011 01001101 10000011 01010100 10001000 00010001 10000110 11110010 …

which we may imagine are stored in the memory of a computer.

What do these figures mean? In other words, given they are a representation, what do they represent?


I hope you didn't struggle too long before replying. There is simply no way to tell what they represent.

Maybe this slice of computer memory is part of an encoding of an image or a line from a Shakespeare play, perhaps a fragment of a recording of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony ℃ anything. We cannot tell just by looking at the numbers what they stand for or represent. They mean nothing in themselves. In the jargon of computer science, they have no semantics, which Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary(1998) defines as:

semanticssi-man-tiks, n sing: the meaning attached to words and symbols

To humans, the words ‘I'm coming home tonight …’ have meaning. Vermeer's painting of the young lady has significance for us – it depicts things with which we are familiar. (And it contains hidden meanings, too. The picture of Cupid over the young woman's head hints at what she is thinking about.) Even a piece of music has meaning for us, in a more diffuse way. But when we take these things across the boundary, they are stripped of their meaning. They just become numbers, their human associations lost. If their meaning is to be regained, they must be transported back from the digital to the human world. How can this be done?