It Seems Digital, But We Still Live in an Analog World

The other day, I had lunch downtown with my brother Nil. We got caught up on all the usual guy stuff – football, hunting, stock car racing, and analog versus digital.

Nil told me he is an analog man, and my jaw dropped. How could a modern man actually prefer analog over digital? I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

We often use the saying “living in a digital age”. What exactly does that mean? And what age did we live in before?

Well, we lived in the “analog” age.  Analog means “continuous flow”, something that varies and you can measure but it never really stops moving for very long. When we measure and control things in the analog way, we use needles and dials and such.

A digital age world is a lot more precise. Take watches for example. It used to be when you asked someone the time, you got an answer something like “quarter past” and that was close enough. I noticed a while ago that if I asked the same question to my daughter, she’d say something like “eight fourteen.” A lot more precise,  and, to be honest, somewhat annoying until you got used to it.

Which leads us to another question: what was so wrong with the analog age that we needed to move to a digital one? The first answer is having the ability to replicate something exactly.

Think of a phonograph record. You placed a needle in a groove and amplified the vibrations to get a sound. You also got a lot of static because the groove got dirty or scratched, and when you made a recording of the contents of the record on a tape, those scratches were transmitted with the music along with some hisses and static – electronic “noise”. Then if you copied from one tape to another, you picked up more noise.

This impairment of a work as a result of successive copying is known as generational entropy. The same thing happens when you photocopy a page from a book, and then make a copy of the copy, and so on. You’ve seen these final copies, where you can barely read the original work because of all the black dots that cover it.

The other reason we’re in a digital world is that we now have the means to store huge amounts of data, and transmit it at tremendous speeds. This means that large works can be converted to a series of bits that are either 0 or 1, on or off. In this format, they can be replicated and transmitted very fast, and without any generational entropy.

So why would an educated man like Nil actually prefer analog? The example he used is woodworking, where you cut and shape and plane and it’s all very real. Every piece of work has its own unique character. The brush strokes of the artist, the notes of the musician, they all start out as analog. And in fact they all end up as analog as well, because our senses are analog. That’s the difference between a human and a robot (so far).

So we have to be careful when we say we live in a digital world, because we don’t really. We live in an analog world and we temporarily transform certain elements to digital for expediency. Even a piece of artwork on a web site that has only ever been stored in digital format started off in analog form, even if only in the mind of the designer and the movement of her hand on the computer’s mouse. The beauty in it is analog, the storage of it is digital.

And I guess maybe that’s the point. Beauty is analog, expediency is digital.

2 replies
  1. MJ (via email) says:

    As for analog versus digital, most of my analog clocks kept time better (consistent with the Dominion time signals), although the digital displays falsely imply more precision. Some research suggests that analog displays (in aircraft, for example) give a truer sense of things like descent rates, but maybe the pilots in those studies grew up with Mickey Mouse analog watches 🙂

    As for reproduction without loss of quality, your assertion doesn’t hold for successive copying of JPEG images, but I get the principle.

    Tell Nil that I am on his side of this discussion.

    MJ (via email)

  2. Pat d'Entremont says:

    I think you could say that digital doesn’t have a hope of being as accurate as analog, because you would need an infinite number of digits after the decimal point when you store a value, and the moment you store it, it would be out of date anyway, whereas in the analog world the needle would vary along with whatever is being measured. Or you’d need an infinite number of pixels in an image, or an infinite number of bits in a digital recording.

    Then again, beyond the limit of human perception, does it really matter? The Hubble Space Telescope gives us more beautiful images than anything we can see at an eyepiece, and it is all delivered to us digitally.

    Some people also say that analog doesn’t measure accurately either, because the mere fact of measuring something alters it.

    Let’s face it, we live in an imperfect world.


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