Friday, April 27, 2012

Laws of the digital world

by Alcedo Coenen

Many of us live our lives increasingly in what I would call the "digital world": we meet in social media like facebook and google+, we read our news items in twitter, we exchange ideas in forums and blogs, we shop online, and last but not least, we communicate large parts of our business through emails, documents, spreadsheets and databases. The objects of communication may be of physical nature (ourselves, machines, supplies, clothes etc) but also these objects turn out to be of digital nature increasingly: I think of ebooks, software, games, money, contracts, data. You could therefore say, in my opinion, that we are creating a 'digital world' next to our physical world. With 'world' I mean an environment that has its own characteristics, and that has its own boundaries and restrictions. These restrictions are highly important and have a significant influence on our behaviour. I would like to explore this in this blog.

Natural laws in the physical world
In the physical world we know these restrictions as 'natural laws': we daily experience the law of gravity, the law of speed, the law of Ohm, etc. We mostly quite unconsciousness recognize these laws, untill we break them and get injured or get something broken. The law of gravity (Newton's law of universal gravitation) is a fundamental one, which has such enormous influence on our way of living, that we don't realize it anymore. The way we put things in our rooms, how we build our houses, how we move to other places, all these activities are highly restricted by the law of gravity. It is the fundamental bevahiour of "things" in the physical world that restricts and enables our being in the 'physical world'.

Natural laws in the digital world
I'm wondering what the natural laws in the 'digital world' are: what is the behaviour of "things" in the digital world that restricts and enables our being in the 'digital world'?

Here some of them which I can think of.

  • The law of reproduction. While copying things in the physical world always leads to loss or inevitable differences with the original (think of copying a woorden chair, or photocopying an original document), in the digital world copying can be achieved lossless (think of copying music or software). The copy has the same qualities as the original, and in many cases cannot be differentiated form the original. One of the consequences of this behaviour is that copyright is very difficult, maybe impossible, to maintain in the digital world, because the concept of copyright is based on the supremacy of the original and the original author. Another consequence is that digital information can be used on many (phyiscal) places at the same time, without traveling restrictions.
  • The law of semantic distance. While traveling in the physical world is a geographical transition, going from position A to position B, with a direct relation between distance and time-to-travel (dependent of the traveling method), traveling in the digital world is a semantic transition, going from domain A to domain B. Although you could take time of the transition into consideration from URL A to URL B, restricted by the physical properties of the network to pass through, this is not the significant part. When we look up something in the digital world, e.g. by using a search website, it is the semantic distance that takes our time: looking for a good picture of a "rule", e.g., brings us in many different semantic worlds before we see the one we originally meant (figure 1). Semantic distance can graphically been displayed as physical distance (figure 2). A consequence of this law is that we need to take "travelling time" into account when searching digital objects over semantic domains.
  • The law of semantic erosion. While memorizing and keeping things in the physical world are directly related to the erosion characteristics of the used material (you can keep things in rock much longer than wooden objects), digital objects do not erose or deteriorate, unless its physical barriers (hard disks e.g.) do. Digital data can become useless, however, in two ways: or the data are not accessible anymore in a meaningful way because the software/algorithm to access it is lost (think e.g. of encrypted data), or the data refer to concepts that are passed or considered useless (think e.g. of a database field that sets the customer's fax number). In both ways the semantics are eroded, while the data still exist. Erodition time in the digital world is releated to semantic relevance.
  • The law of logical derivation. In the physical world we have the concept of “power”, setting things into “motion”. What are “motion” and “power” in the digital world? I think that logical derivation is the basic “power” of the digital world. It sets digital objects into motion. “Motion” is information change. The well-known coding structure “if … then …” illustrates the basic behaviour of digital systems quite well: digital systems are capable of processing data and change them into new data on a set of conditions. That is actually what happens all the time in the digital world. When we upload a photo on Facebook, we actually change our digital status, and Facebook takes that as input for putting advertisements on the page. When we click such an advertisement, many other status of data has been changed and causes other actions like showing the page of the advertiser.

Fundamental laws
What is the digital equivalent of the law of gravity? What is the fundamental law, that sculptures our behaviour in the digital world more than anything else? What law can break things? I can think of two candidates: the law of reproduction, or the law of logical derivation. An example of “breaking” with the first is unintential spam: copying a digital message that copies itself to many others, is an example of breaking the law of reproduction; because the copy is not deteriorating, the reproduction is endless. This law enables us to work at home, to watch television online and to collaborate simultaneously with collegueas on documents.

The best candidate for being fundamental, however, is the law of logical derivation. An example of “breaking” this law is designing systems as if they were logistic systems. Information systems, or better business operation systems need to be designed as logical derivation machines, not as procedural logistic processing systems. Otherwise the system looses its power. Logistics is a domain that has its relevance in the physical world, because it deals with the inertia of physical objects and the time that is involved. In the digital world objects have the lowest possible intertia because there is no gravity, and time is negligible. Therefore, in the digital world the procedural, logistic approach is suboptimal, and needs to be replaced by the state machine approach. In fact, our digital world is one big state machine. Which means that the equivalent of our physical gravity law may be found in the derivation law for the digital world.

Breaking the law
At Be Informed, we're not only looking for laws, we try to break them too. And to create new laws.