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seven layers

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Election Day in Ireland, to elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The parade of ugly faces on every single lamppost – and I really do mean every one, no exceptions – has been obscene, and I only mention it today because I’m relieved it’s over after today.

In the IT world, we sometimes use a conceptual model of computing systems, especially networked systems, called the OSI Seven-Layer Model. It doesn’t map to all systems directly, of course, and you sometimes see a simplified four-layer model used in the USA to describe the Internet in particular – the above-linked page includes a link to the equally-valid DoD four-layer model. You can find a single piece of software encompassing or even bypassing individual layers, but the overall point is to define and maintain standards for communication between the layers.

The fun starts when you try to extend the model into the “real” world: not something you could ever take seriously, but it’s a bit of geek fun, especially today when I was “troubleshooting” a problem outside the computer domain. (Search for “OSI Layer 8 problem” for examples of how others see this.) A colleage and I formulated our own OSI Ten Layer Communications Model: this is my “atheist” version:

Layer Description Example: Internet Example: Prayer
10 Universal Information “God”
9 Management / Government Concept / Idea Priest/Rabbi/Imam (optional)
8 Individual You (in front of a keyboard) You (holistic sense)
7 Application Web Browser Formal Prayer
6 Presentation Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) The words in the prayer (if any)
5 Session Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) The act of worship (prayer session)
4 Transport Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) Thoughts (hopes, wishes etc.)
3 Network Internet Protocol (IP) Language spoken.
2 Data Link Machine Address Code (MAC), Ethernet Sounds from your mouth.
1 Physical Cable or Radio Spectrum vibration of air molecules
0 Order/Chaos quantum fluctuations quantum fluctuations

(Layer 0 is shown for fun only, it’s of dubious use in everyday communication.)

Tempting as it is to try to extend this model to every aspect of life, it is clearly only suited to communication tasks. The table is for a single entity, and so a piece of communication between two entities means “drilling down” through the layers to the physical, where the actual communication takes place. The signal is picked up by the recipient, listened to (or not), and interpreted according to known standards until the original message is understood.

Note the conclusion that communication is grounded in a physical layer: it works this way in the real world, which is why I expect religious people to object to this idea. My “prayer” example is not a perfect fit to the model: the person saying the prayer may be saying it out loud, so they are broadcasting on the physical layer. But sound only carries so far, and so the implication is that the actual person-god communication is at a higher level. “God hears our thoughts” can be read as implying that the actual communication is at Layer 4 on my model, completely bypassing language, speech, and sound. In other words, it is not physical, or natural, and is therefore supernatural.

My knowledge of real-world communication gives me one more reason to be highly skeptical of religious claims. They are always founded on person-god communication – if there was no communication either way, there would be no point. Maybe you talk to God… but can He hear you, assuming He’s there at all?

Written by brian t

June 11, 2004 at 12:57 pm

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