Several months back when I could string together a couple of fractured hours to write a thing for myself, eked out in the moments between moments, when work didn’t need working, the children weren’t screaming (much), and the house was in a state of oh-so-temporary order, I wrote a post about ‘bits’.

It was alright, and largely captured some of what I wanted to express, but involved quite a bit of maths. I spent some time checking my maths, making sure that the fantastically huge nonillion really was such a minuscule number in comparison to 2-to-the-power-of-256, but missed something seemingly simple.

I stated: … [a] bit … combined with 1023 others makes a byte…

This is completely wrong!

A byte is made up of 8 bits, not 1024—usually… (More on that later.)

I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t recently read an article about NASA releasing a video of Pluto, created from ‘more than 50 gigabits’ of data captured in 2015…

‘Gigabits?’, I thought.

Do they mean gigabytes?

And then I went to Wikipedia and learned a byte is not 1024 bits. I learned:

  • A byte is ‘smallest addressable unit of memory’ in a computer (Translation: The smallest thing you can issue a command for with code.)
  • It’s usually 8 bits, unless it’s some other number between 1 and 48…
  • Usually, 8 is the number of bits needed to encode a single character of text, which is why it’s the most common ‘byte’, and can represent 1 of 256 possibilities.
  • 4 bits is called a nibble, unless it’s called a nybble, or a nyble, or a half-octet, or a half-byte… Or a tetrade. Unless we’re speaking about networking, where it’s called a semi-octet, quadbit, or quartet. Fer realz. And if you already knew this, or can understand why you might want to target a nibble, you are a fucking supergeek and win the internet. All of it.

So… I’ve fixed the original post now.

The bigger problem

OK, that was the bit about me being wrong. (In this instance. There are so very many more. Just ask my wife Minnie.)

So how does this relate to the crushing, fundamental problem with the internet that may very well mean the end of civilisation?

I created fake news. Completely innocently, mind you. But just like the malicious kind, it was read by a bunch of people who thought: Sounds legit. And then they might have brought it up in conversation. (As you do, right? At the printer, waiting for Jenny’s 7000-page print job to finish, you turn to that guy you vaguely know, Steve, and say ‘Hey, Dave, I mean Steve, did you know that a byte is made up of 1024 bits? Totes, I read it on the internet.’ And then Steve tells his mum, who is writing a digital transformation strategy for the federal government, and then things go even wronger.)

I’ve done it myself, earnestly repeating ‘facts’ I’ve heard from seemingly authoritative sources:

Now, who among you has heard one of these 3 things before and accepted it as fact?

While the societal damage these 3 factoids can do is limited, there are others out there that are massively damaging… The ‘facts’ purported by conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers are at the extreme end of the scale, but what about all those ‘little cuts’… What about the fad diet of the moment? The advertising for ‘healthy’ breakfast drinks, loaded with sugar?

That’s why we should make sure we get our news from legitimate news websites, right?

Like this story about the origins of the 404 server error from one of the biggest Australian news sites.

Wait, what?

This journalist has verbatim repeated an urban myth, giving its veneer another coat of legitimacy. Was his bullshit detector broken? Did he not Google this, or HTTP status messages generally?

Why am I so worked up?

The problem is once an idea is formed, an effect known as the confirmation bias makes it hard for people to change their minds. We trust things that align with our existing beliefs, and even interpret ambivalent statements as evidence confirming our already held points of view.

And we all suffer from it. You. Me. Politicians and policy makers. Everybody. (Kumbaya!)

This is a problem. How can society move forward and solve the problems we face in an evidence-based way if we can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction? If we’re geared to fight to maintain the first answer we hear, shutting out the possibility of any alternative, regardless of any new information we may find?

I’d like to think that most people could agree that no-one has all the answers. No-one is right all the time.

With that in mind, what’s something you thought was true until you realised it wasn’t? Something today? Something this week? This month?

If you can’t think of anything, something you think is right is most certainly wrong.