Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Analog people in a digital world

Much has been said over the years comparing the original Star Wars trilogy to the prequels. Even more has been said about the digital fudgery of the older films. With the recent purchase of the Star Wars franchise by Disney, these discussions are back in the forefront. I won't elaborate too much on my opinion other than to say that:
  • Digital effects do not make up for a lack of storytelling.
  • Who said it was necessary for digital animators to keep all their work in focus and the screen constantly busy with effects, so that viewers can always see their shiny work? One thing I learned in Graphic Design is that, sometimes when people notice your work it can be a bad thing. Meaning that if you as a designer (animator, artist, etc...) do something that pulls the viewer away from the intended result, or they see your work rather than the intended message, then you messed up. Reign in the ego and start over.
  • The originals were much better at telling the story than their later, higher-tech counterparts.
  • Step away from the green-screen. Sometimes real is better.
  • We know who shot first, no matter how many times to try to explain it.
But, I digress...

For argument sake I would say that the original trilogy could be compared to “analog”, and the prequels could be compared to “digital”.

To put it another way. Audio engineers and audiophiles often attempt to describe the differences between analog and digital in how it affects the sound of music. Some will describe analog sources (vinyl, tape, live) as “warm”, and digital sources (cd, mp3, etc...) as “cold”. Others will describe analog as “muddy” and digital as “crisp”.
Sound is formed by waves that are continuously variable in frequency and amplitude. These would be considered analog waveforms. Digital is not continuously variable. It is either “on” or “off”. Therefore to recreate sound it must sample the analog audio at a specific sample or bit rate in order to reproduce the sound in numerical values. This creates a stepped waveform compared to the fluid nature of original. The higher the bit rate the more closely the digital signal will match the analog, but there are still steps. So, what if there is a sound at a value that is between these steps? That value is ignored. To put the concept more simply, imagine a fretted vs fretless bass guitar. Sliding your finger up and down a fretless bass will produce an infinite number of possible notes. Sliding your finger up and down a fretted bass will produce the notes of each fret in steps.

Likewise, the voice you hear at the other end of your cell phone is not the actual voice of the person, but a digital representation of that voice. When the vocoder (the device that encodes and decodes the sound of the human voice into and from digital format) encounters a sound it doesn't recognize, or if cannot filter out background noise or static, it ignores the information. This is often why you will hear voices cut out in low signal areas or other situations. Typically cell phone audio is also highly compressed to make efficient use of the networks. Compression is another advantage of digital technology. It allows more information to be transmitted with less size. However, it does come at the expense of audio quality, which can sound more robotic/mechanical or drop out completely, whereas the human ear and brain can detect recognizable voices through quite a bit of noise and static.

In most areas of technology digital is commonly marketed as “better”. Digital is “new” and therefore better than what is perceived as “old” or analog. Therefore in the minds of advertisers we must progress to the digital or be left behind in the analog. Digital has given us many great things, though it is not a replacement for everything. We have digital TV, digital radio, digital phones, digital cameras, digital music, and more. But a digitally synthesized cello is not a real cello. However, neither can a cello create the syncopated layers of modern electronic music, any more than a trumpet is a drum, a fork is a spoon, or a rice cakes is tasty.

This may sound like I'm coming down on technology (odd coming from someone who works in the technology field) but I'm not. Rather, I would suggest that analog and digital are two different ways of doing similar things. They both have their advantages and disadvantages.

So, could it be said that the constant push to make everything digital has filtered out the character, nuance, and sometimes the imperfections that are the “warmth” of an analog life lived by analog people? Perhaps. How many of us can remember the the top ten phone numbers in our contacts, without looking? How many of us can count change, or do math in our heads? How much do we know about our friends, other than what is strained through the social media filter? How many face to face friends do we have compared to our Facebook friends?

People are analog. Technology is often digital. Let's use technology responsibly, not simply for technology's sake. Let's remember the difference between digital technology and digital marketing hype. We don't have relationships with our email, or texts. We have relationships with the person on the other end who wrote them. In our quest for technology let's not forget the human elements.

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