Senior Editor Richard Mansfield writes about the end of the analog age in this month's Guest Editorial.
Editor In Chief,
We are moving into a digitized world of bar codes, synthetic music, computerized TV, and thousands of other kinds of computerization. This is a major technological and cultural shift, and it's already having an impact on the way we entertain ourselves, communicate, perhaps even on the ways we think.
To better understand what digitization means, let's reflect for a minute on the difference between analog and digital systems. A rotary-dial phone is analog: To dial a seven, you stick your finger in the seventh hole and drag the wheel around until you hit a bar. Then you release the wheel and there are seven clicks which the telephone company switching network can hear and register as the number seven. In other words, you've sent some information by counting off the number in a physical way. This isn't all that removed from communication via smoke signal or drum.
A digital (Touch-Tone) phone doesn't attempt to imitate the number seven. You just push a button labeled seven and a particular musical tone beeps. It doesn't beep seven times. By previous agreement, that tone represents the number seven.
A fundamental difference between analog and digital is that analog imitates the thing it's trying to communicate—it's a physical charade. If you could make yourself very small and walk along a groove in a record album, you'd see canyon walls of vinyl rising and bulging on either side. There would be various bumps in the walls which imitate the sounds of the music. In fact, if you saw big bulges at regular intervals, it's likely you'd be seeing the sound of a drum.
Historically, man has usually assumed that nature itself is based on analogies. For example, some Greek thinkers believed that a chair was composed of millions of little chairs, too small for us to see. There's something reassuring about analogies: They seem to suggest a chain of being, a continuity. But modern physics has revealed a stark, discontinuous, virtually random world of quanta. Tables, they tell us, are made up of accidental packets of reality, thrusting and bumping beneath the quiet surface we observe.
And now music is being quantized. Digital discs measure music by taking samples of it 44,000 times each second. Each of these samples is simply a number, like 1388, which represents what a microphone heard during a particular 1/44,000 second. These numbers are then stored on a small disc which can be read by a laser. On the laser disc, a song is a string of numbers: 1388 42778 42778 42758 and so on. It takes about eight million of these numbers to store a typical three-minute-long song. But a laser can read them and a computer can process them so fast that you think you're hearing real sounds.
They're working on digital TV, too. The picture will come in from the antenna, but it won't be immediately put on the screen. Instead, it will be held inside the TV for a brief instant, translated into numbers, analyzed, and then sent up so you can see it. During this analysis, any blurring, ghosting, or other degradation of the image will be fixed. What you will see will be a tighter, sharper image. You'll also be able to freeze a picture and print it out. A digitized picture, like digitized music, is just a huge collection of numbers. And numbers have several advantages: They are easy to store and transmit, they can be efficiently manipulated, and they cannot be easily degraded.
If a tiny piece of dirt gets on a record, it will add its own sounds to those canyons of vinyl, hissing or popping sounds, depending on the size of the dirt. And with all the miles of phone lines and all the millions of switches, sooner or later there is bound to be an extra click or two when you're trying to dial a seven.
Analog records can be scratched; clicking rotary dials can be misunderstood by a switchboard; ordinary TV signals can suffer during a thunderstorm—the problems with analog are legion. But bad weather, dust, or scratches cannot hurt a number. 1388 is always 1388.
So everywhere you see the effects of digitization. You used to turn up the volume on a radio by turning a knob. Now you're likely to find a button or a pressure pad where the knob used to be. When you press it, nothing behind the button revolves, nothing analog happens. Numbers are simply increasing or decreasing in a microprocessor chip. Many electronic appliances now have no analog knobs at all.
Speed, efficiency, malleability, and integrity are the advantages of digitization. The analog world is in its twilight. It's too early to tell if there are any hidden, unpleasant side effects of digitization, any thrusting or bumping beneath the surface. Yet we increasingly depend on a reality composed of numbers so quick and so immense that we cannot watch them or feel them or even, in many ways, understand them. In a sense, we're turning things over to the computers. They have no trouble at all with numbers.