Can a Number Be Illegal?


Image: CobraCZ/Shutterstock
Image: CobraCZ/Shutterstock
If information can be illegal, a number can be illegal. It’s an obvious statement—numbers are information—but one that might lead to absurd conclusions, as a computer scientist named Phil Carmody attempted to demonstrate in 2001 with the discovery and publication of a stupidly long prime number representing a section of forbidden computer code implementing a DVD decoding algorithm known as DeCSS.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

Understand, there is a number for everything. There is a number for you, and there is a number for me. Certainly, they are very large and in a sense arbitrary numbers, but, because there is no limit as to how large a particular number might be, we can be assured that our personal numbers exist and that they will encode every facet of our being. There is a number, one number, that encompasses every cell, every molecule in our bodies, and that same number will contain our entire past, present, and future.

All I’m really saying is that we can be described by information. And if we can be described by information, that information can then be encoded numerically—binary or otherwise. We can imagine much simpler and more deterministic-y things in the same way, such as computer programs. A computer program, after all, is naturally and necessarily described by a number in the form of binary machine code. We might simply take machine code, which is a long sequence of numbers that can be interpreted by a machine, and add it all up, with the result being some number.

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