Slaying Dragons #12 – Is Digital Automatically Wonderful?

John Watkinson wonders whether digital is automatically wonderful.

I have lived long enough to have seen the so called digital revolution take place, not just in audio but in life. In one sense I feel very fortunate to have lived through that era and to have made a living documenting it. Being in the right place at the right time is a powerful combination, but there is no recipe for it. The moves which brought me through that career only appear strategic in retrospect. At the time they were little more than chance.

I must point out from the outset that there was no digital revolution, because revolutions take place at an identifiable date and represent a sudden change in the way things are done. That is not what happened; it was more like evolution. Digital islands popped up and gradually the tide went out to leave a few pools that are not digital. The evolution occurred at different times in different fields. Word processors arrived first, because the data required to store text are relatively few. Audio came next, because the bit rate of audio isn’t extreme.

Audio workstations were an early example of disruptive technology;

The popularity of personal computers pushed down the cost of hard drives and the audio workstation eclipsed the use of tape. Audio workstations were an early example of disruptive technology; they all came from start-up companies because the traditional audio recorder manufacturers hadn’t seen the opportunity.

These changes led to the requirement for a word to describe things that gone before and were not digital. The word that was chosen was analog. It was a poor choice, because an analog is just one thing representing another. The width of tree rings is an analog of the growing conditions each year, yet tree rings are discrete. The voltage developed in one pixel of a CCD camera is proportional to the light received, yet the pixels are discrete. The waveform coming out of a microphone is an analog of air velocity, and the numbers on a CD are an analog of that waveform.

The result of this poor choice of terms is that the public now believe everything that isn’t digital must be analog. I was once accused of having an analog timepiece, and as a horologist I felt it necessary to point out that it was ticking and so must be discrete in operation. More recently in a photographic magazine I came across a reference to an analog camera. Slowly it dawned on me that this must mean a camera using film. Yet the discrete data coming out of my digital camera and the discrete grains on film are both analogs of the image falling on the focal plane.

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