Decoding is the process of unlocking the contents of a coded file that has been transmitted. Media files, like movies and music, are normally encoded so that that they do not take up much bandwidth during transmission. They must be decoded back to their original form in order for you to view the video or listen to the music.

It’s like receiving a locked gift box. You need to unlock it to find out what’s inside.

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Humans and computers are alike in several ways. The human communication process includes encoding and decoding, which are also fundamental processes in digital communication. Let’s take a look at how decoding (and encoding as a prerequisite) occurs in humans and computers.

Decoding as Part of Human Communication

Among humans, communications begin with a thought, which gets encoded into a message. Now, this message can take the form of spoken or written words or even nonverbal gestures. Humans can also relay a message through different communication channels such as through chats or phone and face-to-face conversations. The person who receives the message decodes it by turning it into a thought, allowing him or her to interpret and glean meaning.

Say, for instance, that Bob needs help from Amy to prepare a financial report. Bob encodes this thought by sending Amy an email that says, “Can you please check if the figures in this document are correct?” Upon receiving the email, Amy decodes or interprets the message using her own thought process. She thinks about what Bob meant. As such, encoding and decoding are part of human nature.

Decoding in Computers

In computers, encoding and decoding are also internal processes that make communication possible. Data has to be converted into a string of ones and zeros so it can get transmitted to another computer. This process is called “serialization,” which ensures that the receiver can convert or decode the data back to its original format.

Ones and Zeros: What Are These?

Let’s back up a bit in case you are confused about how and why would computers convert messages into ones and zeros. Remember that computers can only understand numbers. When you type in facebook[.]com on your browser, for instance, your computer has to look up the corresponding IP address of the website so it can load the right page.

Specifically, computers understand binary code, which is a two-symbol system. The two symbols are “0” and “1.” Therefore, all data that goes into a computer requires encoding into a series of ones and zeros. Decoding is necessary for converting the data back to its original format.

Now let’s go back to the example above. When Bob sent the email to Amy, Bob’s computer encoded the message into computer bytes then transmitted as a series of ones and zeros to Amy’s computer. When Amy received the email, her computer converted the ones and zeros into their original format. The same thing happens when you send videos and pictures.

While encoding and decoding may seem like complicated processes, they actually happen automatically in a matter of milliseconds. They occur in the background, so most Internet users don’t even know about these processes. But just because they aren’t visible doesn’t mean they don’t exist.