Bits to Bit­coin: How Our Dig­i­tal Stuff Works

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - John Gil­bey teaches in the de­part­ment of com­puter science at Aberys­t­wyth Uni­ver­sity.

By Mark Stu­art Day MIT Press, 368pp, £24.00 ISBN 9780262037938 Pub­lished 28 Au­gust 2018

The net­worked dig­i­tal world in which we find our­selves is com­plex and can be con­fus­ing to the unini­ti­ated. Just what hap­pens when you type a query into a search en­gine? How is mu­sic con­verted from ana­logue into dig­i­tal for­mat and back again? How can I en­sure that my fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions are se­cure when car­ried out on­line? What is Bit­coin any­way?

Any one of these ques­tions could sup­port an en­tire vol­ume in its own right – and fre­quently does. In this com­pen­dium, how­ever, Mark Stu­art Day sets out to ad­dress these and many other mat­ters in a re­laxed, con­ver­sa­tional and essen­tially non­tech­ni­cal man­ner.

Mak­ing few as­sump­tions about pre-ex­ist­ing knowl­edge, he builds a pic­ture of our dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment from the ground up, tak­ing care to in­tro­duce us to the phys­i­cal con­cepts that un­der­pin the tech­nol­ogy with­out delv­ing too deeply into their hard­ware im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Hav­ing es­tab­lished a set of prin­ci­ples, the text in­tro­duces the sim­plest form of soft­ware – a ba­sic lin­ear pro­gram op­er­at­ing in iso­la­tion – be­fore adding com­plex­ity in the form of mul­ti­ple pro­cesses, ad­di­tional users and other chal­lenges. This al­lows Day to gen­tly ease us into the con­sid­er­a­tion of re­cur­sion, lim­its, in­ter­rupts and the many other el­e­ments that make up more com­plex soft­ware en­vi­ron­ments.

Once we have reached this point, the net­work­ing of sys­tems is the nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. This is han­dled with style and at some length, with wel­come at­ten­tion to the es­sen­tial but of­ten over­looked logic be­hind data com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­ter-net­work­ing.

The struc­tures of in­ter­net pro­to­cols and packet-switch­ing are cov­ered in just enough depth to make sense and be use­ful to non-spe­cial­ists, with­out ex­pos­ing them to the full ar­cane de­tail of the ar­chi­tec­ture.

The ex­pla­na­tion of how com­plex net­worked sys­tems op­er­ate and are man­aged brings home just how much can go wrong – in­deed it some­times seems sur­pris­ing that any­thing ever works at all.

While much of the lo­gis­ti­cal de­tail of net­work man­age­ment is rou­tinely hid­den from the user, the dis­cus­sion in this text may make read­ers more sym­pa­thetic to the plight of those largely un­sung ex­perts who main­tain our dig­i­tal ser­vices. Net­worked dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ments need to be kept safe and, hap­pily, the later chap­ters of the book carry a use­ful anal­y­sis of the prob­lems of trust in­her­ent in such sys­tems.

This dis­cus­sion in­cludes lessons from his­tory and a nod to cur­rent con­tro­ver­sies over pri­vacy and pol­i­tics – while is­sues of iden­tity proof and trusted com­mu­ni­ca­tion also get ex­plored, along with some per­ti­nent ex­am­ples.

The text is rounded off with an ef­fec­tive cou­ple of chap­ters that con­sider the pro­cesses around cryp­tocur­ren­cies in gen­eral and Bit­coin in par­tic­u­lar. This is the cul­mi­na­tion of the grand tour of dig­i­tal pro­cesses that Day gives us – but those who buy books based on the ti­tle alone should note that Bit­coin is the des­ti­na­tion of the text and not its main topic.

Con­cepts are fre­quently ex­plained by anal­ogy, which may prove help­ful to those with­out any for­mal back­ground in the field. Just oc­ca­sion­ally, how­ever, I found the ex­pla­na­tion more com­plex than the topic it was seek­ing to ad­dress – but, as the au­thor him­self sug­gests, “if this anal­ogy doesn’t work for you, just ig­nore it”.

Mod­ern money the first cryp­tocur­rency, Bit­coin, was in­tro­duced in 2009 and is ‘mined’ us­ing hard­ware known as a rig

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