I’ve been working in the tech industry, close to software development, for about 20 years; more recently at the infrastructure and operations level. And throughout time, like many of my fellow colleagues, I’ve met a number of people who looked at me as “the computer guy” and decided to ask: How does it actually work? When we say “downloading a video“, “re-tweeting a joke“, or “sharing a picture on Instagram“, what is going on in there? What exactly is coming in and out of those “Internet pipes“? This curiosity usually sparks after they feel shamed by one of Dara O’Brian’s comedy stand ups.
To the common user, computers are literally magic boxes with buttons and a color display. It’s a wonderful machine you can use to play games, share moments, buy stuff, talk to friends, meet new people… But when a tech savvy person tries to explain how anything works under the hood, things go south really fast. Attempts to explain vary from how binary numbers work to all sorts of analogies, down to trucks and a series of tubes. Most of the time, an in-depth explanation quickly devolves into a Rockwell Retro Encabulator presentation.
No wonder so many movies depict people destroying computers by trashing the monitor. People just give up, and social life keeps going.
The analogy I tend to use is somewhat simpler. It tries to explain how computers and the Internet work in a way that’s simple enough, but still captures the fundamental concept of what is going on under the hood. This analogy makes no attempt to dive into complex operations performed inside the CPU, or how bits of raw data move between cache registers, main memory, permanent storage or network interfaces. Forget the Retro Encabulator for a moment and focus on the actual purpose. Remember what it all means. What it’s actually used for.
Buying a computer is like buying a deck of cards
When you go to your favorite store and order a brand new device — a smartphone or a laptop you can work on — no doubt, you are actually buying what can be considered the apex of human technological evolution. A delicate, complex machine that uses electricity to pump billions of operations in one second.
But, behind that shining exterior and the fancy tech jargons you see on the box, those tiny electronic components inside hide a much simpler concept; one that most people take for granted.
So… now at home, you have your brand new deck of cards. What can you do with it, aside from the obvious choice of playing games? You are free to do whatever you want. The deck is a physical object. It is truly yours. Paint over the cards, build a castle, count the cards, arrange them on the table to form an beautiful pattern. The choice is yours.
Imagine you managed to arrange all of the cards on the table to create some pattern that you like. It’s a work of art!
Let’s say that you really, really like what you see and immediately want to share it with your best friend, except he lives hundreds of miles away. The fastest move would be to pick up the phone, call him and pass on instructions so he can recreate the same pattern using his own deck of cards. When you are done passing instructions, your friend will have a replica.
Now… Here are some important things you need to take notice right now. Your friend does not have the original work you created. Not a single card on his table is yours. He does not have a picture of your work, not a fake mockup, not a carbon copy, not even a description. It truly is an exact replica. Most importantly, you should realize that your own creation never left your house. You still have all of your cards with you, lined up the same way as before. No image or any physiscal object was literally “transmitted over the wire” or some “magical tube“. The only thing that went over phone was your voice; instructions on how to recreate your work. Since you and your friend speak the same language, he can understand the instructions and create a perfect replica from miles away — no talent required!
Wait, that’s it?
Yes. It really is. Trust me! My Computer Science degree tells me that. Think of the “phone conversation” you had with your friend as your “Internet connection” and “decks of cards” as “computers”. Each person has its own machine, and is free to rearrange their own contents anyway they want.
If you ever wondered what digital information actually means, that concept is perfectly layed out in your deck of cards. Information we care about is represented using smaller pieces that can be managed individually. Fundamentally, every piece is identical in nature, and the only thing that matters to make sense of them is the order and the purpose for which they are presented.
Digital information never arrives anywhere because it never leaves. The Internet really is a web of electronic signals, wired or wireless. Those signals are instructions to recreate exact replicas of the information from one computer inside another.
If you ever want to have a sensible discussion about anything in the digital era we live in, that basic understanding needs to be clear. It becomes relevant when you consider that every computer on Earth is built the same way, and works the same way. For example, if we want to write better laws for copyright infringement, patents, net neutrality, social privacy, cyber crimes, crypto currency… Remember the deck of cards, because that’s the underlying scenario on top of which all of them actually happen.
Everything else you hear from experts are just fancy words for complex ways they found to manufacture machines that operate on that same simple idea.