What Is Binary?

What Is Binary?

“20 Questions” demonstrates the power of dichotomous relationships, in which something can only be one thing or another (Yes/No). Other examples of dichotomous relationships might include: a light switch, which can either be flipped on/off (not including dimmer switches), or handedness (left/right, not including ambidextrous folks), or at the most basic level, existence (something either exists or it does not).

Binary code is another example of a dichotomous relationship. Binary code is represented with the two symbols 1 and 0. In binary code, if something isn’t 1 then it must be 0 and vice versa. An example of what binary code looks like is 10110. Unlike the alphabet, which uses the characters AZ or decimal numbers, which use the digits 09, binary uses only 1s and 0s to represent something. These 1s and 0s are referred to as bits (short for binary digits), and they are foundational to digital computing.

The purpose of bits is to represent something digitally. They are how information is stored, accessed, transformed, and used by computers. Everything that we see on a computer is actually stored as bits. The letters on this screen, the images, the links, everything you see on this webpage is stored digitally as electrical switches turned off or on (typically represented as long strings of 1s and 0s) that computers can interpret and transform into symbols we understand, like numbers, letters, images, sounds, and programs.

This is, of course, an oversimplification of binary code and bits. Typically, in modern computers, the 1s and 0s we refer to are the presence or absence of electrical signals, but they don't have to be! One of the many beauties of computer science is that abstraction allows us to view many processes and systems computationally—even those not involving a “computer.”

Learn more about bits and binary code from Blown to Bits: