In my youth, the cutting-edge in photographic technology was the color Polaroid Land camera. Edwin Land was the inventor of the “self-developing film”, and Polaroid was the company that marketed it and the cameras that used it. I got my first Polaroid “Swinger” color camera in the mid-1960s. Drop-in a roll of film, snap, and then pull the picture out of the camera. Less than a minute later the image magically appeared before your eyes. It was groovy. Polaroid film and cameras have been pretty-much dead since the late 1980s, just as standard light-sensitive film is pretty-much dead now. Digital photography has taken over, even though digital photographs are of lower quality. Why? Well, that brings us to the next old-school media to die.
There is currently a very quiet debate going on all over the world, centered on the issue of paper. On one side are the “paperless world” advocates, claiming there’s nothing paper can do that digital information can’t, and a lot more digital information provides. On the other side are the “material” advocates, who rightly claim that digital information doesn’t actually exist and is therefore not permanent, nor can it be reproduced in electricity’s absence.
Both sides are correct. But when you add-up the two columns, paper will lose for two reasons: cost and convenience.
Paper costs money, because it takes forest management, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, distribution, warehouse storage, and shelf space. It is also large and heavy once archived, so there is another warehousing issue. So the argument is as moot as was the argument against changing from clay and wax tablets to paper. Although paper was the more fragile alternative, it was the more convenient. And convenience is an even larger consideration than cost.
This situation has now extended to almost every aspect of our daily lives: music, video, news, mail, finance, health care, even the ubiquitous phone call – all have become digitally-dependent. The problem here is the world, life itself, is analog. Life is not a stream of discrete numeric values; it is a stream of continuous information – even the energy patterns that make-up the matter in our bodies. Analog means one continuous process happening all the time, with no discernable gaps in the stream of information. This was how everything worked up until the digital age: electricity, electronics, mechanics, and all of nature existed in the analog world.
No more. Digital information is easier to process and store. It’s easier to manipulate an interruptible stream of discrete numbers, thus easier to anlalyze and interpret. It takes less energy. Ultimately it is more cost effective and much, much more convenient. How many songs can you pack into an iPod? Like a gazillion? Back in the days of vinyl records or even CDs even owning that much music would have been impossible – so we had radio to do it for us. Radio is, of course, an analog signal.
So what’s the down-side? There are two big ones. First, digital information is ephemeral, as there is no “stuff” it’s made of. Just as ink marks on paper represent ideas made material, digital information represents ideas made into numbers – there just isn’t any “stuff” it’s attached to. So we now have the concept of “hard copy”, and that, like those old Polariod snapshots, is considered temporary and disposable (consider: my spellcheck does not know the word “Polaroid”).
One good massive electro-magnetic pulse from a massive solar flare or a few well-placed nuclear weapons would wipe-out the information storage of this country (or any and all others). Government and business have done what they can to minimize this risk, but since it hasn’t happened yet no one really knows if their safeguards will work. That’s why the government and banks, etc., still put the really important stuff on paper and hide it in vaults somewhere.
The second downside with digital information is it’s approximate information. It is a series of samples of the analog world, and there is always information lost in conversion from analog to digital. For most applications this isn’t too bad (word processing, for example), but for others there is a noticable effect. This is why CDs and MP3s may sound cleaner than vinyl or tape, but they also sound sterile or incomplete by comparison. With audio it isn’t so much that there is less information (really, old LP records and cassette tape are sampled recordings, too), but what information is missing. Analog recordings aren’t as precisely sampled as digital: that variation in precision is what gives them their “human warmth” that digital can’t reproduce.
When we get to science, to medicine, to recording the contents of the human brain (coming soon to a despotic regime near you), will this approximation be good enough? We’re finding out now. But even if it isn’t, that will not create resistance to the approximate digital world we will all live in before long. Because of those two primary factors of cost and convenience. One day soon there will be no books, no celluloid film, no analog radio signals buzzing through the air, no paper contracts or birth certificates, no newspapers, no analog x-ray images, no telephones (they really aren’t telephones anymore, anyway). Everything will be experienced in an approximate manner, and the only analog signals will be those running through our nervous systems.
And they’re working on that, too.