Monday, April 12, 2010

The myth of digital versus analogue

Digitisation changes media not materially but at the level of the code. For example a digital video camera works in the exactly the same way as an analogue video camera, in that the light rays travel through a lens and strike a charge couple device where they are converted into electricity, it is only then that these electrical signals are digitised (that is to say turned into binary code: whereas analogue video signals are transmitted or stored in electronic for as fluctuations in voltage). Those who wish to emphasise a categorical distinction between digital and analogue media should consider that digital transmission and analogue transmission both use radio waves, and that digital and analogue recordings both user electromagnetism.

Kress and van Leeuwen (2001, 97) and Bolter and Grusin (2000, 105) to name but two sets of the best new media theorists who into this trap, talk about differences between digital and analogue in terms of ontology: there are different kinds of media. For example Kress and van Leeuwen state that the primitives that make up an analogue photograph (silver halides) are different to the primitives that make up a digital photograph (pixels). While at one level and dimension this is true, what is also true is that the material composition of the primitives do not radically alter the nature of the image itself since a photograph is about the image not about the material means of realising that image. (For if it were otherwise digital photographs would have a different quality and the technology would not have been such a good candidate to replace analogue). This confusion derives from a misdirected analytical scrutiny that looks at the material rather than the code, however, a photograph is not meaningful because it is made of silver halides its meaningful because the patterns of light and shade be they created by silver halides of in pixels are interpreted as images.

It is not hard to mistake, for instance a digital image with an analogue image; usually digital images are found on computers whereas analogue images are found on walls in the form of painting or photographic prints. It may be argued that a digital image can assume this form also. But if this is so, then they are no longer digital image (because it exists in print-form on paper not on a computer. Conversely, an analogue photograph may be digitised, in which case it is no longer an analogue image but a digital image that exists on a computer.

The real confusion emanates once media has been encoded and printed out to be distributed or transmitted as mass media. A photograph that has originated digitally when it is seen in a newspaper or on television cannot be distinguished from a photograph that has originated using analogue processes. Because both now have the same materiality in that form (they are in face both analogue photographs). The problem is that whereas before there was some guarantee in the fidelity of the image, to the object it represented (largely for the reason that it was too time consuming or costly to manipulate the image using airbrushing techniques). Now there can be no such guarantees. So people conclude that digital photographs have no indexicality. However, this is not precise enough. Digital images do have indexicality, in that they accurately represent the light rays that were present at the scene at the moment they were taken. They have in fact as much indexicality as analogue images when they leave the camera. The difference lies at the level of the code. For an image once digitalised can be manipulated at the level of the pixel using Photoshop software which produces photorealistic results (and because many of the operations have been automated by the software such manipulations are quick and cheap to do).

But the point I wish to emphasise, is that it is only at the level of the code that such ontological distinction meaningfully apply, since when the code is realised in a material form, all the affordances of digital no longer apply. Therefore what theories that posit an ontological distinction between digital and analogue are doing is reaching back (as it were) through the code to reify those differences in a material form. This is why digital verses analogue is a myth.


Bolter, D.J. & Grusin R (2000) Remediation: Understanding New media
. London. MIT.

Kress, G & van Leeuwen T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse. London. Arnold


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