Introduction - Digital vs. Analog Week


relating to or using signals or information represented by discrete values (digits) of a physical quantity, such as voltage or magnetic polarization, to represent arithmetic numbers or approximations to numbers from a continuum or logical expressions and variables. Often contrasted with analog .

analog (also analogue)
relating to or using signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position or voltage. Often contrasted with digital.

Photo by Alex Eylar, photo illustation by Rachel Steinhauser.

I have been writing for BreakThru Radio for two years now, and when BTR’s theme week scheduling began late in 2010, I think I can speak for the editorial department when I say that many of us were excited over the prospects to pursue weekly, focused articles all relative to a specific theme. Some of our site’s themes have been fun and easy for me to scrutinize and probe, while others have been more challenging. So, when I came across this week’s theme of “Digital vs. Analog”, I was surprised to learn that I was neither excited nor thwarted—I was completely stumped. “What the hell does that mean?” I thought to myself. Sure, I understand the two words and feel I have a concept of their definitions and the differences between the two adjectives, but how do we dedicate an entire week of music, video, and written content to their distinction?

Firstly, it is crucial to state, and understand, that the fundamental difference between these two forms of technology is not a difference that remains constant across the board. It depends on what product, product feature, and/or technological form one is discussing before differences are understood. That being said, most commonly the two different platforms for which analog and digital are compared are audio and visual (i.e. sound and video). It can be something as simple as a monotone beat or as a complex as Radiohead’s live version of “Idioteque”, as simple as black text on a white screen or as complex as Avatar in 3D. At the very basic level of this distinction lies the same problem: How does one get the information from an object in place A to the receptor located in place B?

In order to get one signal from A to B, historically technology has taken that signal, translated it into electronic pulses with a specified frequency, and let those pulses ripple their way from the original source, through the transmitter, and on to the receptor. This analogical method has been used for decades and was a successful way to pass signals whether they were audio (like a phone or radio) or visual (like an old antennae television). Recall the base form of the word, “analogy”; meaning to compare two things. In this case, we are comparing the original source of the sound or image being broadcast to the one being received.

The problem that eventually came to analog did not have to do with frequency, speed, or success rate, but rather size. The transferring of a signal via means of electric pulses had its limits. Enter digital. Basically, what digital does is takes a signal, breaks it down to a specific code made up of 1’s and 0’s (i.e. “digits”), makes it compact, and then sends it from point A to point B where it is received by a component that is able to de-code the map and display the original sound or image.

The wonder with digital is that the de-coder at the end of the transmission is able to determine exactly what the original message was. With analog, some signals get lost, interrupted, or simply fade away before reaching their intended target. Like ripples in water, the electric impulses may not make it all the way to the shore. This doesn’t happen with digital.

On Saturday, May 21st of this year, the high line overlooking Chelsea and the Meatpacking District was stretched shoulder to shoulder with a long line of people–about three hundred or so. At the one end of the line, stood Lama Pema, the highly regarded Bhutanese Tibetan Monk. He had a message from the Sutra and he recorded it by texting it into the Notes page of his iPhone.

“This is what I heard at one time, like a shimmering star or a flickering lamp / A fleeting autumn cloud or a shining drop of morning dew / A phantom, a dream, a bubble, so is all the existence is to be seen.” Lama Pema then leaned over and whispered the phrase, one section at a time, into the ear of the next person, so beginning the giant game of ‘telephone’. At the other end of the line waited Salman Rushdie. Hours later, Rushdie received the Sutra’s message and revealed it to anyone who was remaining: “Follow the glass stone, follow the glass stone / The droid from hell / If anything exists it changes.”

This analogous way of transmitting the Monk’s words from point A to point B was entirely, 100% wrong. Had he texted Rushdie, the words would have been in the palm of his hands in nanoseconds, and would have been entirely, 100% accurate. It’s a gross exaggeration of an example, but you get the point.

Yet here’s what’s odd—while the words didn’t match, the message was the same. “A central teaching of Buddhism is that everything is ephemeral,” noted Lama Pema wisely. “In the end, the words were not my message—those got completely lost. But it was very fascinating because coincidentally, accidentally, the listeners got the sentiment. And then they created their own words.”

So what is the difference?