Digital Just Wants to be Analog

You’ve heard the phrase “information just wants to be free?” I’d be grateful to anyone who can actually track down the source of that quotation; my puny efforts have failed.

In the meantime, please accept it as a nice play on words for an introduction.

All Things Digital Seem to Aspire to Analog

Have you noticed, with all the talk about digital this and that, that the actual goal of most digitization seems to be a reversion to analog?
Think about it. What is HDTV about except an attempt to recreate analog? Aren’t video games trying to seem more and more ‘realistic,’ i.e. analog-like?

What are digital sound and movie recordings trying to do?  To achieve higher and higher fidelity to a life-like, very analog, experience.

Cisco Systems  is making great use of a nearly-analog version of videoconferencing.

In the science fiction realm, the ‘coolest’ stuff – I always though- were holographs and transponders. One is a near-perfect image, the other a way of obliterating time and space barriers to sweet home analog.

And don’t forget everyone’s favorite digital creation- robots.   Not industrial robots, of course, but analog robots like R2D2 and 3CPO – robots hopelessly stuck with things like British accents and adolescent attitudes.

Even digital movies are generally about very analog creatures – cartoon versions of ogres and mules, for example.   How much more analog can you get?

Digital just wants to be analog.

Why the Analog World Appeals to Digi-Philes

The basic appeal of digital breaks down to three factors: freedom of space, freedom of time, and freedom of editing. Digital lets you mess with stuff, unbounded by annoying limitations like time zones, protein, and long distances.

But home sweet analog, analog on the range, analog is where the heart is. It’s messy, sloppy, unpredictable, only approximately causal, but gosh it feels awfully real. Sometimes reality bites, but other times it’s all mom and puppies and roller coasters and exultation.  Even pain is drenched in feeling.

The desire to be digital—OK stay with me, I’m reaching on this one- comes from our desire to control.  And the desire to stay analog comes from our desire for complexity and richness of experience.

The adolescent dream, of course, is to tie the two together.  (I call it adolescent not in a derogatory way, but in the sense of a powerful desire to integrate things into one.)  Logically, you can either make digital look analog—or make analog look digital.

Analog, Digital and Business

Business is loaded with examples of trying to turn analog reality into digital form – and it is, indeed, very much about control. Back in the day, the word used for internal accounting systems literally was “control.”

Control was accomplished by the systematic collection, manipulation and analysis of data. When Robert McNamara started at Ford Motors in finance, he said they used to evaluate outstanding receivables by weighing the pile of invoices. That was analog control. He of course moved it to digital.

The digital desire for control hasn’t changed that much. We now have process control meters or processes just about everywhere, and more analytic firepower at our fingertips than we know what to do with. Literally.

We now have digital mantras: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  The ideology of digital has decided to co-opt the field of management. I wonder what Peter Drucker would think of that (it’s his 100th birthday this year)?

Fortunately, digital just wants to be analog. The pursuit of digital brings us great benefits, but at the end of the day, it’s only as good as fake analog.  We will revert to the mean, and the mean is analog.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a charming short story about the end of such searches.   The only perfect map is a full-size representation of the original.  Which makes the map redundant; and worse, boring.

What analog reality are we striving so diligently to represent digitally? And what price are we paying for the illusion of control?