The binary switch is a basic component of digital information. From phase-change alloys to nanomechanical beams, molecules and atoms, new strategies for controlled bistability hold great interest for emerging technologies. We present a generic methodology for precise and parallel spatiotemporal control of nanometre-scale matter in a fluid, and demonstrate the ability to attain digital functionalities such as switching, gating and data storage in a single colloid, with further implications for signal amplification and logic operations. This fluid-phase bit can be arrayed at high densities, manipulated by either electrical or optical fields, supports low-energy, high-speed operation and marks a first step toward ‘colloidal information’. The principle generalizes to any system where spatial perturbation of a particle elicits a differential response amenable to readout.