Friday, March 18, 2005

March 2005 Early Indications I: Being Analog

The march of digital processes and devices to fill spaces formerly occupied by analog technologies proceeds apace. Some examples follow:

-paper memos to e-mail

-"regular" cable to digital cable

-VHS to DVD and TiVo

-film to digital photography

-VGA and component video to DVI and HDMI

-LPs and cassette tapes to CDs and MP3s

-circuit-switched voice to Voice over Internet Protocols

-AM and FM radio to terrestrial digital and satellite services.

Many observers make the mistake of classifying a digital technology as "better" if only by the virtue of modernity. It's more useful, however, to treat any technology comparison as a contrast between different sets of costs and benefits. Furthermore, every development has unintended consequences that its creators could not have predicted, and these need to be considered as well.

A key factor in any digital technology is the ability to move artifacts over a wire. Compared to physical postage or even fax, various services on the Internet can move music, text, and images quickly and at high levels of fidelity. This capability in turn can be regarded as desirable or not. Is digital photography "better" than film? Artistic control over the final image, portability, and cost and speed of print turnaround are pluses, while film may have an edge in equipment cost, image quality, and privacy. (As for the last aspect, run a Google image search on DCP000[fill in a number - it's a default Kodak numbering scheme] then consider how many people want complete strangers viewing their snapshots? What happens when a) the hosting service goes out of business or b) the hosting service leaves up your images after you quit?)

Another core aspect of digital artifacts is their ability to be manipulated. In the case of Voice over IP and e-mail, encryption gives the bad guys an advantage over the law enforcement types who want to be able to monitor them. Digital cable TV, meanwhile, is most noteworthy not for image quality but for compression, which increases the providers' usable bandwidth substantially. Subscribers can get more channels over the same wire, but image quality (until HDTV) was limited primarily by the 50-year-old NTSC standard. Analog signal processing is an entirely different kettle of fish, with fewer possibilities.

As numerous executives have discovered to their dismay, e-mail is not secure, controllable, or ephemeral. Harry Stonecipher's departure from Boeing is difficult to imagine in a paper memo scenario: few people would use a workplace communications medium for romantic correspondence, and tipsters would not have automated (or other) access to it even if they did. In this instance, analog has clear benefits and can be the medium of choice when privacy matters.

For a variety of reasons, analog and digital options often aren't equally available. Music companies did what they could - closed LP pressing plants, for example - in the late 1980s and early '90s to make customers repurchase music they liked. The CD format's limited copy protection, however, made duplication and distribution extremely easy. Now, as the studios want to spur a new age of multi-channel audio, both Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio formats have highly effective copy protection. The tension between improved sound quality and inconvenience - and a competing standard - plays a role in the pathetic adoption rates.

We can see a similar transition in photography. Kodak will no longer process its legendary Kodachrome slide film, for example. Great film cameras are available in the secondary market - you can get a Hasselblad with lens for about $1000 - but the question is how long processing will be cost-effective and convenient. Processors are in a tough spot: as volumes decline, their assumptions about economies of scale have to be refigured, and the true cost of toxic waste disposal gets more explicit every year.

VCR sales are dropping worldwide, and several major electronics retailers have stopped carrying them. The content providers talk about "plugging the analog hole" - links in the chain of components where unencrypted signal can be digitized buy "unauthorized" parties. Thus the market dynamic is gladly accelerated by content providers only too happy to try to close the barn door before all the horses escape. The lack of backward compatibility means that dual-drive VCR+DVD machines are still offered, but the gap in image quality between analog and digital video, not to mention the greater permanence of polycarbonate over mylar and ferrous oxide, means that analog VHS has limited appeal.

In consumer markets, the easy mobility of digital artifacts has led to copy protection and encryption being primary engineering criteria for the manufacturers and copyright holders. Customers for such equipment have little choice but to pay for expensive functionality that does nothing to improve - and could possibly impair - the experience of using the equipment. It's obvious that Sony has impaled the fate of the company on the horns of this dilemma, but if anyone can resolve it, Howard Stringer is the guy.

Behind the scenes, the analog-digital transition is in some ways profound. Without consumer-grade copy protection to consider, digital tools are remaking medicine, music recording, and architecture, to name but three fields.

-To take only one area of medicine, digital mammography uses hardware (in which lower radiation doses are needed), software (image manipulation to increase contrast or zoom in), and data storage (including data mining) to improve on the performance of film. It's also easier to movie digital files, albeit large ones, than physical films, which is part of the process of outsourcing radiological readings to India and elsewhere. At the same time, merely capturing pictures of physicians' notes or orders means little without metadata to facilitate indexing, searching, and retrieval. Some digital systems are actually harder to use and less reliable than paper files in this phase of their evolution.

-Recording studios (including the Hit Factory in New York) are closing, in part because hard-drive-based editing systems allow musicians to make their own demo and even master tapes using software like Digidesign's ProTools. Even though it is favored by many respected engineers and performers, analog magnetic tape is getting scarce: Quantegy, the last manufacturer of pro-grade audio tape, shut down operations late last year. As studios convert to digital, pro-grade gear from such manufacturers as Studer and Otari is readily available - but with what future?

-The work of architects and designers has been reinvented. Just as word processors allowed writers numerous opportunities to edit and move text without the tedium of retyping, CAD tools make erasing and redrawing tasks of the past. 3D renderings of finished spaces and structures have become incredibly realistic. Construction documents and specifications have also become more automated.

The undeniable benefits of every digital technology raise important follow-up questions. Do we have better buildings because of AutoCAD? Are breast cancer detection and cure rates changing as a result of different diagnostic technology? Does getting copied on thousands of communications that would be impossible to distribute in paper make anyone more efficient or effective? Finally, it would appear that there are digital technologies with nearly unalloyed benefits (such as mammography), while many (e-mail, voice over IP, digital audio) are more complicated in their impact.

As the tools change, it's a fact of anthropological life that the tool-users will change along with them, but this is something we're less good at studying. Nicholas Negroponte deserves plenty of credit for the thinking that culminated in Being Digital (which is ten years old!), but now we have the far more difficult task of untangling what it meant to live in analog when it was the only option, and what it now means to be hybrids between the worlds of bits and atoms.