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Digital, smidgetal: Why it doesn't really matter

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Digital, smidgetal: Why it doesn't really matter

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

Motorola calls my cellular phone a "personal digital communicator." This got me to thinking.

This word "digital" is getting worn out these days. The phone's just one example. After all, my finger is a personal digital communicator, and it doesn't need a battery and doesn't rack up a bill of 21 cents a minute each time I use it.

"Digital," of course, is the magic word in the technology business. It all started with the phonograph record back in the 1970s. Somebody had a brilliant idea: Why not put the word "digital" on records?

These records were about as far from digital as Tom Edison was, but nobody protested loudly enough for the record companies to change their labels, and so the term stuck. You've probably seen records like this. The master tape used to make them came from a digital recorder, but that doesn't make those records "digital" any more than cooking a turkey in the oven turns the bird into a Magic Chef.

The hi-fi business went crazy after that. Some manufacturers tried to get by with the term "digital ready" on such things as speakers, receivers and even tape-deck cleaners, but the lure was too strong, and "digital," all by itself, showed up everywhere. I had a pair of "digital" headphones once, and my brother had a "digital" pen.

The whole idea of digital technology is the use of numbers to represent things that aren't numerical. We're been doing that for thousands of years without thinking much about it.

Take the temperature, for example. We think of it as a number, right? Tell that to Mother Nature, pal. The temperature doesn't suddenly jump from 56 degrees to 57 degrees. There's a whole lot—an almost infinite lot, in fact—of little temperature changes in between. It might be accurate enough to think of the temperature as being either 56 or 57, but we have to realize that we're just approximating it, just rounding it off.

In fact, when you look at the way digital methods really work, they're always rounding things off. Digital sound is like that. Sound waves don't suddenly jump from one loudness level to the next, and yet the only way to record them digitally is to mark off the next level up or down the scale and attach a number to the sound level when that spot is reached.

If you're thinking that this sort of chopped-liver attitude makes digital sound less than perfect, you'd be right. Audio engineers use a lot of tricks to make up for this sort of tomfoolery, but they can't, and won't, ever get it right—if "right" means ending up with the same sound they started out with.

In some ways, digital methods are clearly best. You'd have a hard time figuring out my telephone number—which is digital, right?—if I expressed it in terms of loud and soft sounds. (A drum roll? Make it a 9! A piccolo pianissimo? Call it a 2!)

And that big problem with digital sound doesn't apply to how well you can hear my voice over the phone, which is why Motorola and the other cellular-phone manufacturers digitize everything. Sending out an encoded series of numbers when I say "hello" is a neat way of handling things, especially considering the fact that signals made up of numbers—bip-bip sounds, all the same loudness—cut through the static better than signals that go "hhHhellLLo," up and down, louder and quieter.

But that's a technospeak kind of thing. Does it matter to you how my voice gets from my phone to yours? When Uncle Billy calls, asking for his $50 back, all he cares about is hearing a "yes" from the other end of the line. Digital or smidgetal, it's all the same when you just want to talk.

Motorola probably understand this. Somebody looking for a promotion in the marketing department must have come up with "personal digital communicator." Engineers know better. When the phone rings, they know it's just a talking stick, too.

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