How 0s and 1s Translate to Digital Experiences (2024)

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The Startup


7 min read


Nov 28, 2020


How 0s and 1s Translate to Digital Experiences (3)

At some point in our lives, we’ve all come across the idea that computers “speak” binary — a cryptic wall of 0s and 1s that somehow builds up to everything we see and do in our digital lives. Even as you read these words, the device you are using is somehow manipulating 0s and 1s to make it possible.

As a software engineer, and more generally as a curious person, I want to bridge the gap between the polished interfaces that we interact with on a daily basis and the underlying mechanisms at work to enable them. This is a broad overview of how the elements we encounter as we navigate operating systems, apps, games, etc. could be distilled down to 0s and 1s, without getting too granular.

This begs the obvious question— what is binary? We know that it’s 0s and 1s, but how exactly can these two digits even begin to hold the complexity we encounter in our daily lives? The answer lies in number bases, meaning the number of digits that a system of counting uses to represent values. It’s easy to take our standard system of counting for granted — or even assume that it’s the only one, but that’s far from the truth. The conventional system of counting that uses digits 0–9 is called base ten, while binary is called base two.

Take a random number like 423. In our conventional counting system, the number 3 is in the ones place, the number 2 is in the tens place, and the number 4 is in the hundreds place. Each place represents that place value times the digit in that place. For example, since we have the number 4 in the hundreds place, we are saying “4 times 100.” Each place is a power of ten, 1, 10, 100, 1,000, etc. The same logic applies for binary, but we only have two digits, 0 and 1. When counting in binary each place is a power of two (1, 2, 4, 6, 8).

How 0s and 1s Translate to Digital Experiences (4)

As you can see above, each place is a power of two rather than a power of ten. If we wanted to represent one, it would still be 1, we have a 1 in the ones place, which is telling us “one digit with the value of one.”

Two in binary would be 10; we have a 1 in the twos place, telling us “one digit with the value of two.”

Three would be written as 011, we have a 1 in the twos place, plus a 1 in the ones place, telling us “one digit with the value of two plus one digit with the value of one.”

Four would be 100 because we only need a 1 in the fours place to say “one digit with the value of four”.

If this isn’t making total sense, that’s ok. There are endless resources detailing how to count in binary, but the main takeaway here is that within these two digits, we have the same potential for complexity that we do in base ten, or any other base, it’s just a different way of representing values that we happen to be less familiar with.

Now that we have some understanding of what binary is, and how that wall of 0s and 1s could possibly hold meaning, why would we choose binary for our computers, anyway? Why don’t they just represent information in base ten, or any other base? It’s because of the binary nature of binary. A digit in binary can only be one of two things, a 0 or a 1, on or off, true or false. Because of this, a binary digit — or a bit, is kind of like a switch that can be on or off. We can think of these bits as corresponding to transistors in your computer’s (or your phone or tablet, etc) CPU. In modern CPUs they are microscopic and there are millions of them. For the purposes of this article we can think of transistors as a switch that can be off or on, corresponding to a bit being 0 or 1. In this way, when many bits, or digits are together (8 bits make a byte) we begin to have complexity and meaning depending on the number being represented by those switches being on or off, representing numbers in binary.

So we have 0s and 1s, they’re bits, they represent numbers (much larger than 0 and 1), and they are a representation of the hardware on our devices. What does that have to do with my experience of this cat gif? (And what about the cat’s digital experience?!)

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Text and Binary

The final missing part of the puzzle is that everything we do on our devices can be (and is!) represented in numbers. Text, images, video, sound, the pixels you are looking at, are all being read by your device as numbers. One way English characters can be converted to numbers is by using the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, or ASCII. In this form of encoding, every character corresponds to a number, which of course can be represented in binary.

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However, ASCII is limited to English so if you’re using a different language, or even an emoji, your message may be encoded using Unicode. Every time you feel sassy 💅 or sad 😢, or send text through one of the countless methods available, you are actually transmitting numbers using one of the possible encoding methods like ASCII or Unicode.

Sound and Binary

We can take the idea of using numbers to represent characters and apply it to sound as well. Audio encoding transforms sound into a digital format by recording sound waves and breaking them down into small segments or “samples.” Each sample is then measured and converted into a digital value, which is a series of numbers. These numbers can then be represented in binary. When you play an audio file, your device reads this binary data and reconstructs the sound waves for you to hear. This is a very simple explanation of audio encoding, but the core concept is the same — all kinds of data, including audio data, can be distilled down to binary and manipulated or transmitted by our digital systems.

Color and Binary

But what about images, and the overall visual experience of interfacing with a device? As you may already know, the screens we look at are made up of pixels that can display three colors, red green and blue. By mixing these three colors we make up the color gamut of the display. Most modern displays use 24-bit color — a detail we don’t need to focus on, but which allows us to see 16,777,216 color variations. Below is a picture of all of those colors. Note that the color gamut of screens is a subset of the visible light spectrum.

How 0s and 1s Translate to Digital Experiences (7)

Each individual pixel has three channels — red, green and blue, and each channel has a value, meaning how much of that color should be used. In this way, we can represent colors as numbers, which of course, can be represented in binary. Below is a small sample of some colors and their RGB encodings. Note that each color has three values, one for each channel.

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Just as colors, and therefore images can be represented as numbers, so can videos and gifs. They both have a frame rate — they are a sequence of images being flashed before our eyes at a speed that appears like movement. Each frame is a still image that itself is made up of pixels, each pixel has a color that can be represented numerically, and the software on our devices is fetching these numbers from places like YouTube where they are hosted. Every visual you see is being displayed to you using pixels that receive signals about what color they should be, perhaps to form a letter or an emoji, a selfie, or a vlog.

Social media posts, image searches, videos, songs, are all being transmitted to us because deep down, on a machine code level our devices are computing 0s and 1s that hold the values for the pixels that will flash before our eyes, dictated by software that was also compiled down to machine code to provide instructions on what to do with all the information we input or request. At the end of the day, the countless complex things we do on a daily basis and take for granted are at their core being performed by a multitude of tiny switches that can only turn on and off. From the simplest of components the complex virtual worlds we live in are formed.


How 0s and 1s Translate to Digital Experiences (2024)


How are ones and zeros represented in digital systems? ›

The binary or base two (2) mathematical system represents values as a series of ones (1s) and zeros (0s). In binary, the number following 1 is 10. But in this case, the digits 10 represent the value two, not the value ten.

What do 1s and 0s represent in terms of digital signals? ›

Since the binary system uses only two digits or bits and represents numbers using varying patterns of 1s and 0s, it is known as a base-2 system. Here, 1 refers to "on" or "true," while 0 refers to "off" or "false."

Are 1's and 0's really used in digital devices? ›

It seems to be common knowledge nowadays that computers store data as sequences of 0s and 1s. However, that's not actually true. While thinking about the data stored in a computer as 0 and 1 can be a useful abstraction, it can be quite misleading if taken too literally.

What is digital info represented in 1's and 0's? ›

Binary is a code that consists of the numerals 0 and 1. Computers contain transistors that can be either on or off. If 1=yes and 0=no, then binary code can answer yes or no to simple questions.

Why 0 and 1 are used in digital electronics? ›

Binary numbers are represented in terms of 0 and 1. The binary variables can have a logic 1 or a logic 0 state, represented by two voltage levels or two current levels. In a positive logic system, the more positive of the voltage or current levels represents a logic 1 and the less positive represents a logic 0.

What are 0 and 1 in the digital system called? ›

Binary is a scheme of numbers that only has two possible values for each digit: 0 and 1. The term also describes any encoding/ decoding system in which there are only two possible states.

What is 0 and 1 in digital signal? ›

A digital signal is a type of continuous signal (discrete signal) consisting of just two states, on (1) or off (0). In computer systems any waveform that switches between two voltage levels representing the two states of a Boolean value (0 and 1) is called a digital signal (see Fig.

Why are 1s and 0s important? ›

Computers cannot accurately, precisely, and consistently process analog signals. Computers require the smallest amount of variability to be accurate. 1s and 0s—or on and off—are the smallest degree.

How do computers understand 0 and 1? ›

The chip contains a lot of minuscule circuits which operates when a certain amount of voltage is applied across the circuit components. This voltage is of 2 types: the HIGH voltage (that is the '1') and the LOW voltage (that is the '0'). So the computer doesn't understand the 0s and 1s, rather it works on them.

Why do computers use zeros and ones? ›

Answer and Explanation:

It is conventional to record such binary numbers as zeroes or ones. Computers work this way because it is simpler to produce them. In theory, non-binary computers can also be made. However, in computer history devices run in binary, which people call zero or one.

Why is digital 1 and 0? ›

It's because of the binary nature of binary. A digit in binary can only be one of two things, a 0 or a 1, on or off, true or false. Because of this, a binary digit — or a bit, is kind of like a switch that can be on or off.

What language represented by 1 and 0 do computers use? ›

The machine language contains only two symbols 1 & 0. All the instructions of machine language are written in the form of binary numbers 1's & 0's. A computer can directly understand the machine language.

What is the representation of data as 0s or 1s? ›

The 0s and 1s used to represent digital data are referred to as binary digits — from this term we get the word bit that stands for binary digit. A bit is a 0 or 1 used in the digital representation of data.

What is digital code 0 and 1? ›

binary code, code used in digital computers, based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually symbolized by 0 and 1.

What are 0s and 1s represented as in memory? ›

A piece of computer memory can be represented by a series of 0's and 1's, with one digit for each bit of memory; the value 1 represents an “on” bit and a 0 represents an “off” bit. This notation is described as binary form.

How are the digits 0 and 1 represented in the computer? ›

1.1 Bits and bytes

These two states can be represented by the binary digits 1 and 0. The term “bit” is an abbreviation for binary digit. Bits are the building blocks for all information processing in computers. Interestingly, it was a statistician from Bell Labs, John Tukey, who coined the term bit in 1946.

How are numbers represented in digital systems? ›

The 0s and 1s used to represent digital data are referred to as binary digits — from this term we get the word bit that stands for binary digit. A bit is a 0 or 1 used in the digital representation of data.

How do computers use zeros and ones? ›

It is often said that computers “think” in ones and zeroes. This notion is a fact for most conventional computers. Due to the way the circuits are built, the most reliable way to store, retrieve, and process data is by flipping electronic switches called transistors on (1) and off (0).

How do we represent data in ones and zeros? ›

Computers use bits (binary digits) to represent data as ones and zeroes. Bits are the smallest piece of information a computer can store. Explore how computers use the binary number system to represent numbers, text, images, and sound with electrical signals in their circuits.

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