The digital world is made possible through the collaborative work of many people. As pointed out earlier, many of the developments in the digital world have been the result of basic research in the sciences, with many scientists playing a role in proposing principles in mathematics, physics, and chemistry that have become the foundation for building the products and systems of the digital world.
Mathematicians play a particularly important role in this process because all digital systems depend on logical operations that are done by the computer. Those who study mathematics are the ones who are able to work out the complex logical combinations required to do tasks like developing the systems of computation that must be done to convert decimal and analog systems to binary numbers. The notion of developing a number based only on two digits—“0” and “1”—was first developed by mathematicians more than 300 years ago. This system was later refined by those studying mathematics to show how strings of binary digits could be combined in logical patterns to representcomputations.
For example, those studying logic showed that different real conditions could be simulated by logically combining thestate of an electric switch, where current would flow only if bothswitches were on, or if any one switch was on. Complex combinationof these two basic logical conditions, the first being called the
“AND” condition, and the latter being called the “OR” condition, is still used to develop complicated digital systems. The people doing this research are more interested in the abstract combination of logical statements and might not even be thinking of the exact application of their inventions. Other researchers are able to take the basic principles and develop them into specific ways of doing tasks.
Mathematicians provide the abstract thinking needed to set up the logical processes, while physicists help to understand processes, like the way electrons flow in electric systems. The work of the physicist complements the task of the mathematician by demonstrating that the flow of electrons can represent the logical systems. All digital tools are based on the flow of electric currents, and much of the magnetic storage system used in many digital tools is dependent on the way magnets function. Physicists study both areas to show how the properties of electrons and magnets can be manipulated to do computations required in digital devices. Most components of a digital tool like a computer are built with the basic principles of physics in sight.
All digital tools are also built around a special kind of chemical compound called a semiconductor, which has unique properties with regard to the way electrons can flow through it. A clear understanding of the way semiconductors perform is provided by chemists working with the chemical element silicon. This building block of the electronic switches that follow the logic patterns established by mathematicians is a chemical element extracted from sand.
Every grain of sand is composed of silicon, which allows electrons to flow through it only under special conditions and in special ways. One of the first people to discover that electrons flow only in one direction through semiconductors was the German physicist Karl Ferdinand. Braun, who demonstrated his discovery in 1876. Although the first discovery was made by a physicist, the development of the silicon based semiconductor was continued by physicists and chemists who worked together to invent ways to manipulate the physical and chemical properties of semiconductors resulting in the development of the computer microprocessor.
Research on semiconductors continues to develop more efficient ways of manipulating the characteristics of the material. Most research on the basic elements of the digital world is conducted by scientists in leading universities worldwide. The scientists are often trained in their areas of specialization, and to become good at this form of work, they need to spend many years learning the basics of the science. Scientists who work in universities have often spent nearly 10 years in college after receiving their high school diplomas. In that time, the person would earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by further education building up to a doctoral degree.
Many scientists also work with mentors for a few years after completing a doctoral degree, before becoming established scientists on their own. These are people dedicated to science and research who find their home in universities, where they not only do their own research but also train their students to either continue with the basic research or apply the basic research to develop new tools.
The professionals who apply the basic research are usually different kinds of engineers who help to develop the digital systems as discussed in the next section.
Most components of the digital world are made up of a hardware part that includes all the pieces of the technology. For example, the semiconductor material is used in making the microprocessor, which is considered a part of the computer hardware. The pieces of the complete computer include other parts like the monitor, the keyboard, and the pointing device. These objects are manufactured using specific techniques, and the way they work depends on knowledge developed from basic research. The people who are responsible for designing the parts of the computer and then manufacturing the pieces are usually trained in different areas of engineering.
The task of the engineer is to design the gadgets that make up the digital world. The design process includes making decisions about the purpose of the component, the way it will look, the way it will work, and the best way to manufacture it. Each of these elements requires the expertise of different kinds of engineers. Among the various engineers, some are more central to the process than others. The electrical engineer and the electronics engineer play important roles since they work on the exact electrical aspect of the gadget. For example, a computer requires a power supply to make it work, and electrical and electronics engineers are the people who are responsible for designing and manufacturing the best power supply unit. The computer engineer is the one who decides on the exact components that must be included in a gadget. Many gadgets now serve different functions, and the computer engineer needs to ensure that all the different pieces can indeed work together as designed.
The computer engineer is also the one who is best able to interact with the computer programmers who develop the programs that provide instructions to the hardware. Engineers are also needed to set up the manufacturing plants where computer components are made. Sophisticated machines are needed to build some components, and civil engineers, mechanical engineers, and chemical engineers are the principal people to set up and operate these factories. For example, the microprocessors used in personal computers are extremely delicate objects in which thousands of electronic switches made from semiconductor material are packed into a tiny unit. Special factories are required to make these products that are usually designed by computer engineers.
Since some hardware components, like the keyboard, are constantly used by people, some engineers focus on ensuring that the object is easy and comfortable to use. Digital gadgets have also diversified into many shapes and sizes to be used for various applications. Cell phones and personal digital music players have to be small so that they will be portable. Some applications require large digital tools like large screen displays that present unique manufacturing challenges. Many computers are designed to have a special look, as in the case of the Macintosh series of machines, made by Apple, which appear sleek and attractive.
All of these various technological challenges require the services of many different engineers who must work together to produce the most efficient machine. The working of a digital gadget is also dependent on the specific instructions that are provided to the gadget to do its intended task.
For example, a digital camera is made up of a lens, a charge-coupled device (CCD), and other components that must work together to capture an image, convert it to digital data, compress the data, and store it on a memory device.
Just as turning a steering wheel in a car instructs the front wheels to move in a specific direction, the digital gadget must also have unambiguous instructions about how to handle the digital data that is created by each component of the tool. The instructions also need to be provided in a clear, concise, and logical way to ensure that the digital tool does what it is supposed to do. These instructions are also called computer programs, which are made up of series of statements written in special programming languages.
Computer programmers are trained to create the computer programs, and they must have a good understanding of how to instruct a microprocessor to perform a specific task following the code sent to the component. The profession of computer programming can have many different levels. Some programmers are trained to meticulously write codes to do complicated tasks. These people are trained to use specific computer languages like C++ that allow them to create specific programs for different functions. For example, computer programmers might be called in to design special programs that do certain tasks within a certain industry, such as keep track of the total amount of products sold by a grocery store. These programmers start with a core set of problems that a client would like to have solved, and then the programmers use logical systems, also called algorithms, to design a code to allow the client to perform everyday tasks efficiently.
This kind of programming is customized for specific tasks and industries, with each computer program remaining a unique set of codes that would only be useful for whom it was designed. There are other programmers who use existing computer applications to do different tasks. These people might not actually create a computer code from scratch, but instead they learn all the various functions of an existing program to be able to use it at its best. For example, if a merchant wants to keep track of sales and costs, it is possible to develop a specific program for the merchant’ use only or use an existing financial program to keep a record of the transactions. The advantage of the latter approach is that the standardized program used to address a problem is usually a well-tested and reliable digital tool, and the disadvantage is that the standard tool might not have the flexibility that a customized program offers. A final set of computer programmers are people who design the general logical pattern that the computer uses to solve a particular problem. These are considered “higher level” programmers who might never actually write a specific code, but offer general directions about the way a specific task ought to be done. It is, however, important to have a good understanding of how a set of computer programs performs tasks in order to design the overall logic and objectives of a programming task. Not all computer programs can do everything, and a good programmer often knows the limitations of the computer system being used and designs the program in view of the overall system.
The engineers might be able to produce a sophisticated machine for a specific task, but the computer programmer is needed to activate the machine and make it do what it was designed for. Some programs might be quite straightforward and simple, but in the absence of the programs, the machines would not be able to do tasks in an efficient manner. With digital systems entering into every sphere of life, computer programs are needed for all different tasks. No single computer program can be expected to do all the things required of a modern computer. Numerous programs are available for a personal computer, created by programmers with all sorts of expertise, making computer programmers an integral part of the digital industry. Most programmers have strong training in mathematics and logic, which allows them to consider a logical solution to a problem and then implement the solution with the help of a computer program. The people trained in engineering and computer programming are required to produce a working digital tool.
Once the tool, along with the computer programs, is available to the common user, it is possible for the user to begin to learn how to implement the different programs and develop specific codes based on the programs available on the computer. For example, the popular spreadsheet program called Excel, made by Microsoft, allows users to create simple programs to do repetitive tasks. These programs are often called macros and are developed by the user of the program. Users who are adept at developing simple programs also play a significant role in the digital world, as pointed out in the next section.
The art of using and learning
The user of a computer often plays a significant role in developing new computer codes. Most people have to use the standard computer programs that are provided with most personal computers. For example, one of the most popular word processing programs is Microsoft Word, and a large number of computer owners use this standard tool for all writing activities. This program is a well packaged product that allows users to perform most of the basic tasks of writing. However, the program also allows people to do some experimentation with small codes that they can create to simplify some tasks. The user becomes the creator of the code or macro and can share it over the Internet with others. In this case, the user might not be trained in computer engineering or computer programming, but instead uses standard tools to develop useful codes. With millions of people constantly using macros, there is a large collection of such simple codes that others can consider using.
A similar process happens with amateur users who develop simple computer programs for personal use and then make them freely available to others via the Internet. These computer programs could be designed to do specific tasks that no one else might be interested in, as in the case of converting digital video files from one specific format to another. This kind of program is generally written by people who have learned computer programming and then dabble in creating simple codes. The Internet has provided a great boost to such innovators, who are ready to share their programs with others without demanding any compensation. These programs are often called freeware since the program software is offered free of cost. The availability of freeware also demonstrates a fundamental aspect of the digital world—its desire to constantly innovate. Large corporations like Microsoft and Apple are sometimes unable to try new things because those forays could be financially disastrous. As a company becomes larger, it sometimes becomes averse to risky propositions; therefore, a significant amount of innovative work is happening in the world of freeware.
Large companies also try to maintain their trade secrets with respect to their computer programs. For example, the complete code for Microsoft Excel is made up of millions of lines of commands, and Microsoft zealously protects the exact computer code. The user is never able to tinker with the basic Excel program but is restricted to only using the options offered by the company. This reduces the opportunity of innovation, making it difficult for users to implement any meaningful change to the basic computer program.
Many people considered such restrictions unacceptable, and a movement started in the late 1970s and early 1980s to develop computer programs in which the entire code would be available to everyone and people would be invited to alter the code to improve the programs’ quality. These programs are called open source software, since the basic code, also called source code, of the program is open to all. The movement for open source software gained momentum in the
1990s when a Finnish programmer named Linus Torvalds developed an alternative to the Windows software and named it Linux. Users were invited to modify the basic code of the program to make this a viable alternative to the more expensive Windows program.
This program became immensely popular, and thousands of users, who were usually amateur programmers, started to develop associated computer programs that would do many of the tasks that commercial programs did. The strength of open source software lies in the fact that many users with many kinds of expertise are able to contribute to the development of the program and its functions.
There are no concerns about the ownership of the computer program since no single person or corporation has an investment in it. The popularity of the Internet also facilitated the development of open source software because the Internet allowed users to quickly share their innovations with others, who would improve upon the work of one another.
The increasing availability of computers and other digital tools also led to questions about the role that digital systems play in everyday life. Scholars and researchers who might not have been directly involved with the technological aspect of digital systems began to become interested in understanding how digital systems were transforming culture and society, and their work also contributed to the way digital tools were adopted.