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Here’s to the Flip-Flop

By Lee Felsenstein and Lena Diethelm Sept. 8, 2004

In the current presidential campaign much has been said about “flip-flops”, with jeering partisans waving rubber beach sandals to curse the challenger for having seemed to change some position or other over the years. The incumbent counters with his image of steely, unflinching resolve. “FLIP-FLOP! FLIP-FLOP!” shout the accusing supporters at the right moments in the speech.

But there’s a serious problem — a “flip-flop” is more than a rubber sandal. The original flip-flop is a humble but universally employed technological building block whose characteristics illustrate an important divide within politics today.

Invented by Eccles and Jordan in 1919, the “bi-stable latch circuit” came to be called the “flip-flop” at the very beginning of the computer age, in the 1940’s, when beach sandals were just beach sandals. The flip-flop circuit has an output that maintains its setting indefinitely — until instructed to change it. Pulse it, and it “flips” — pulse it again and it “flops”.

Prior to the advent of the flip-flop, electronic decision-making circuits could only deal with things as they were at the instant the decision was made. Punched-card sorting machines could make decisions about only one card at a time, with each card having no effect on subsequent ones. Electronic control was a simplistic, dogmatic and brute-force matter, with no subtleties and no sense of history.

History, in fact, is what the flip-flop introduced to the technology of control. With it, computers became possible to the extent that today our lives and livelihoods depend upon them.

One flip-flop can remember two possible conditions, or “states”. Add another flip-flop and the number of possible states doubles. String sixteen of them nose-to-tail and you create a counter that can assume — wait for it — 65,536 states. Smear enough microscopic flip-flops onto a bit of silicon and you’ve created a memory chip. Coffee makers, ignition systems, music synthesizers and the mysteries of the Web emerge as a result. Facts, patterns, shades of meaning can now be held for reference and communicated.

“No, no!” cry the incumbent’s partisans, “We need steadfastness, strength, determination! All this stuff about shades of meaning will weaken us!”

But the stolid flip-flop, implemented over generations in every technology used for control, bears witness to the past occurrence of a single event, its flag raised or lowered. It stands, ranked with its innumerable fellows, holding patterns that express letters or numbers, currency or vital statistics, images, sounds, transactions — all the things that make our present-day economy move, or exist at all. Not only does the flip-flop deserve respect, it should be held in the highest esteem.

Were we to abolish the flip-flop we would revert from an interactive age to an age of belief. Machinery could still be created that responds to its surroundings, to be sure, but the rules for these transactions would be “hard-wired” into them, changeable only by an act of surgery, best carried out without witnesses. “That’s the way the system works,” the self-satisfied explainers would say, “trust us on this.”

But we have moved beyond that, thanks to the flip-flop — the Eccles-Jordan invention which, with its multitudes of offspring, bestows upon us a panoply of machines that remember, that adapt, that empower our thoughts and ideas with global reach via the Internet.

Those who fear subtlety, nuance, dissent and individualism can continue to chant and wave beach sandals. We ask those who value the power of the common flip-flop to reclaim its name from those who would, in a sense, do away with its benefits.