Analog vs. Digital

I came across this photograph recently, which got me to thinking. The photo is a reminder of the bad old days of telephony. There is one wire between each house and the central switchboard, and for a town of any sizes, that means a metric buttload of wires.

The interesting thing is, it’s very clear how the system works: a wire goes from your house and you can be connected to anyone else’s house. Things are not so clear nowadays when making a cell phone call. The digital world obscures much about the physical world.

The analog radio tuner is another example, especially if you ever built one by hand. The turning of the dial reminds you that you are tuning in a different frequency. Station ID’s like 89.5 or 101.7 have little meaingin in the digital era, they could just as easily be A, B, and C.

Similarly, the turntable offers a great example of how sound reproduction works. You can see the patterns in the album, touch the turntable and hear how changing the speed of the platter affects the sound. You get no such intuition from digital playback.

Now, I personally don’t have a turntable. I don’t fetishize the sound of vinyl. I’m happy that my music doesn’t degrade into pops, crackles, and skips. I also prefer the advanced editing capabilities that I get with digital photographs. But it’s still true that something has been lost when you can no longer inspect a camera to see how the image is projected onto film and watch the chemistry of an exposed print appear in the developer solution.

Arthur C Clarke famously wrote, “Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While I appreciate the magic of digital technology, I also think we should make sure that we don’t lose the connection to the physical understanding of the world, either. It is insights into the physical world that have led to many of our advancements in science, and a world of mere bits can’t provide that same connection.

I’m not suggesting we call give up our iPhones and LCD TVs, but we should be aware that they are simulations of physical processes, and that kids especially should get a chance to play with pinhole cameras and physical sound reproduction to help them understand the reality behind the magic.

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