(Originally published in the "TidBits" column of the Spring 2003 issue of JOAC.)
(Editor's note: The "TidBits" column is the part of our journal for presenting short and sweet morsels of thought to ponder, even if they are still half baked.)
Beneath the fancy GUI interfaces of today, the special effects and the high powered, high level languages that hide so much from the programmer and the user, lies a primitive level of the computer that few people understand or acknowledge. Not many of the younger "hot stuff" programmers of today even know what is under the surface like this. This experience is known to the "old dinosaurs" as "coding on bare metal", actually being in touch with the hardware on its own terms. Even more archaic (conceptually) are the mathematical foundations of computing, the Turing machinces, Markov algorithms and information theory that formed the intellectual underpinnings of our information age. Few of us would wish to return to the dark ages of assembly language programming, but the lessons of those days should be remembered and taken to heart, even if the intimacy of communing with bare iron will rarely be indulged in by the new generation. One of lessons is that all the spectacular applications of today, just as in years past, are built on a foundation of manipulating pure information as bits on the hardware. It's become a trite cliche these days, but the old boast that "It's all ones and zeros!" is still true.
Things were much different in the archeocomputing days such as the Oracular Temple culture. Much of the foundation that we take for granted was just being invented by these pioneers and much more wouldn't even be imagined for centuries to come. It's hard to imagine how primitive their tools were at times. Remember also that in sacred mathematics, as was practiced by this ancient priesthood, the dissociation between spirituality and mathematics or computing so normal to the modern mind was unexpected and incomprehensible. They obviously would have looked at things much differently than we do. To them, computational issues were not just an intellectual problem, but a matter of spiritual meditation as well.
A well known example of this is the invention of zero around 600 BCE. To the average oracle priest in the centuries before this profound discovery, the idea that "nothing is something that you can manipulate" was bizarre and incomprehensible. They didn't even have the words, ideograms or concepts to formulate such a paradigm. I suspect that it was more likely to be vaguely experienced as a "mystical revelation" by the more enlightened ones than seen as a clear cut idea. To their credit, they came very close in the Q-Ching with their notions of "Yin" and "Yang" (corresponding to 2 and 3) operating under the influence of "I"/Change, the entire dance being embodied in the Tao. But if you had asked them to meditate upon "It's all ones and zeros", I'm sure the mantra would have gone something like:
It's all ones and ... and ... ???
It's all ones and ... ones and ...
It's all ONE!
With the "realization" that "All is One" in their grasp, it's a short step to abandoning the polytheism of earlier civilizations and moving to a monotheistic philosophy. It wouldn't surprise me if this was the basis of many of the religions and spiritual practices that emerged around the world at this time. One wonders what remarkable alternatives to the existing intellectual heritage we inherited could have evolved if only the old ones could have said "...and zero" without clutching.