Analog and digital

It is possible to make a number of competing claims about the nature of our lives and our Universe. It is easy to be confused about these, especially because most people are not experts in any given technical field. An area where this is particularly acute is in the distinction between analog and digital.


Introduction to terminology

Digital refers to things that are discrete. They can be measured precisely. Fundamentally, something digital is binary. That means it can be reduced to a set of on/off or yes/no states. Something digital cannot be anywhere in between. Computer scientists represent these two states as 1 and 0. The difficulty with this approach is obvious: complex phenomena cannot be represented as just one thing or the other. That's why a digital representation can include a number of these so-called ones and zeroes. The more verbose the description, the more precise (and hopefully accurate) it will be. Including additional description can represent something more fully, but it is worth debating whether such a representation can be comprehensive. Can all things be reduced to binary questions? This is a relevant debate in neuroscience, for instance. Can the brain be reduced to a finite set of physical phenomena? More specifically, is every thought guided by a series of yes/no questions? If so, that would make a brain no more or less than a computer. It would also mean that we have limited autonomy. If our thoughts were the direct result of physical phenomena, our thoughts would depend entirely on our physical brain. We would be only puppets. The quest of artificial intelligence is to reproduce human thought using entirely digital methods. It has made incremental progress but not yet succeeded as this overall goal. Whether or not it is possible is an important debate.

People interested in technology, and the public as a whole, have tended to describe our world as increasingly digital. This is an overbroad statement. What is true is that we interact with a number of digital devices in our daily lives. Yet that does not capture the immense range of human experience, which goes beyond our smartphones, despite what both technology proponents and skeptics would tell us.

Analog phenomena are continuous, which means that they are not composed of discrete, individual, precisely-measurable elements. This makes them unwieldy but also beautifully complex. Calculus is the best way of understanding the difference between the two. We can represent a curve using a precise formula, but when we draw it is, well, curvy. It does not have any straight lines or ninety degree angles. When we want to measure the area beneath the curve, we can approximate it by drawing rectangles. Here we see that a digital representation is only an approximation of an analog phenomena. The same is true of Blu-ray Discs approximating film. They can never capture the entirety of the film, because the film has no resolution. It is composed of erratically-sized grains. Here we see a clear advantage to analog technology, in its complexity and nuance. The problem is that there is no way to store this data compactly. A piece of film or a paper document (both analog) take up considerable space. By approximating analog things, a digital file will lose precision while keeping intact the general outline.

We often see the digital / analog divide in terms of physical media, VHS and film being analog mediums, and Blu-ray being digital. The question is much larger and more important than this. We should explain everything with our approach.

As we have seen, neither a digital nor an analog approach as we currently understand them has emerged as a definitive explanation for everything. There is value to each approach. Yet as humans we seek to refine our reasoning. We want to reduce everything to its fundamental essence. We see this tendency in approaches like physicalism. It attempts to describe the world purely in terms of physical laws. Thus endures this question between digital and analog.

This is an important question, because it has fundamental implications for how we understand our world. Can we reduce everything to a discrete set of things and principles, or are some things more nuanced than that? Even deeper, does the nuanced approach of the arts or the exacting approach of science better describe our world? Does one describe the other? Can the two coexist? (I explore similar questions of the mental and the physical elsewhere. I also explore different ways of understanding the Universe.)


Layers of analysis

It is useful here to think about multiple layers. Social interactions, for instance, are worth studying alongside our physical world. We have a number of sciences at our disposal, and each provides a valuable lens. They are indeed layers because one can be reduced to another. The deepest layer is the most essential.

The outermost layer is our daily reality — the interactions we have with others and our environment. The social sciences describe this world. This is clearly an analog later. There are no guarantees in our society. People exhibit complex patterns of interactions. Unfortunately for those without innate social skills, especially those with autism spectrum conditions, there is no formula for successfully interacting with others.

Alongside our interactions with others and the environment is our interactions with things. Things — inanimate objects — take a variety of forms. There are of course digital and analog media. Yet regardless of the thing, we interact with it in an analog way. We often touch things — a physical, analog interaction.

Going a layer deeper, physical things as we commonly understand them are analog. After all, no object is so perfectly formed as to be discretely represented as all or nothing of something. There will always be something disturbing the physical perfection of a thing. For example a 3D model (on a computer) is theoretical and thus digital, but when printed that model will have tiny imperfections that prevent it from being a perfect representation of the computer model. Even when something (like a diamond) is "perfectly" formed, we do not mean that it is literally perfect, but that it gets outstandingly close. Yet in many cases, nearly perfect is close enough. So this layer is rather nuanced in terms of human perception. We can describe something as either analog or digital depending on its imperfections and on how pedantic we want to get.

Physicists have a more exacting way of viewing the world than the general public. Their understanding of physics is based on theory (particularly mathematical laws) that are inherently digital. But in practice, no measurement is going to match theory with infinite accuracy. We also see that things like electron orbits behave in seemingly random ways. Because our physical world is complex, physicists and other scientists use imperfect measurements to discover universally-applicable laws. So empirical physics is analog while theoretical physics is digital. Classical physics (our primary analytical approach from the Renaissance through to the early 1900s) follows the Newtonian route, which describes physical phenomena using an internally consistent set of laws. For most of the modern age this has worked for us. The problem is that it is only an approximation. It describes things only generally. It does best when describing the macro level — the big picture. Whether it is imprecise (not detailed enough) or inaccurate (wrong altogether) is an open question, making it difficult to know whether it is an analog or a digital phenomena.

A layer deeper, when we look at the subatomic level, we find that things are much more precise. For instance we can understand atoms, our former smallest unit of measure, in terms of their constituent parts. And when we examine these components we find that our Newtonian laws were imprecise and even inaccurate. We also find that things occur in counterintuitive and seemingly unpredictable ways. Yet an emerging consensus finds that quantum physics, the study of subatomic particles and interactions, describes our physical world as inherently quantized. Things can be understood discretely and precisely. Work here is ongoing.


The ultimate conclusion? Difficult to say. As we have seen, every layer has elements of analog and digital. What emerges as a pattern is that we commonly understand the world in an analog way, but that the underlying reality is digital. This is difficult for me to accept as a creative person who believes in the imperceptible beauty of literature — games — ideas. Yet out sciences have been explaining more and more in terms of the digital. I know these sciences will advance vastly and quickly.

What I hope in all of this is that we do not lose sight of what makes our human experience so beautiful — the things we do not explain as precise phenomena. Nor should we.

As Robin Williams put it, "Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for."