Blown To Bits

Endwistle’s alias

Monday, June 2nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

An alias is literally just ‘another’ — another name someone uses, or another identity. An alibi (alias ubi) is ‘another place’ where a suspect in a criminal place claims he was at the time the crime was committed.

The term ‘alias’ has been adopted into tech talk to describe what happens when information is lost in the course of capturing it as bits. When you see the pixellation of a low-resolution image, or the staircase effect on what is supposed to be a straight, smooth line, you are seeing an aliasing phenomenon. The staircase is as close to a straight line as can be drawn using only a few pixels, but if what you were depicting really was a staircase, you’d get exactly the same representation. Different realities, when reduced to bits, wind up as the same representation, and there is no way to know from those bits alone which reality they came from.

Information is always discarded when anything continuous is represented as bits. The question is not whether such data loss happens, but whether it matters. And whether it matters depends on how the representation is going to be used. The author photo on this site is a good representation of us, but not if you wanted to recognize us from behind. In a digital audio file, it may not matter if very high frequencies are discarded, since most people over the age of 20 couldn’t hear them anyway.

What does this have to do with Mr. Entwistle, who is standing trial on charges of murdering his wife and child? We noted earlier that his computer gave up some bits that the prosecution planned to use against him: the URLs of some adult-oriented web sites he had visited. Apparently the prosecution will argue that these bits are relevant because the URLs gave a glimpse of Mr. Entwistle’s sexual dissatisfaction, thus helping establish a motive for the murder. Not so fast: the defense doesn’t deny that those sites were visited, but offers another interpretation of the same bits. As the Boston Herald explains,

Attorney Elliot Weinstein argued turning to steamy online porn sites is not necessarily an indication of a joyless sex life; it could also mean a couple was looking to spice up their marriage.

“It might improve sexual activity . . . it might be a curiosity,” Weinstein said during the final pretrial arguments in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn.

Searching for porn may just be for “interest,” or “excitement” or to “expand knowledge,” Weinstein added in his appeal to strike any online sex surfing as evidence of prior “bad acts.”

The judge will decide whether these bits are relevant, and if they are, the jury will get to decide whose interpretation of them is more plausible. But the defense’s basic point is sound: decontextualized bits can represent more than one reality, and our digital fingerprints, while revealing, are an imperfect representation of who we really are.

Comments are closed.