Curtain Call 2001
Apologies to English purists, “digitalization” is not a word. Though maybe it should be. It is yet another example of the creeping of new artifacts into our “living language”. Over the past decade, many such new words have crept in, one controversial entry being “colorization”. Colorization is a process of adding color to back and white movies using computers, supposedly invented by Wilson Markle. Turner Broadcasting turned colorization into a household term. Turner converted hundreds of hours of classic black and white movies (such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) to full color. Language purists vehemently objected to this new word, as English already has a word for adding color, “coloring”. In spite of protests the computerized process became known as colorization. Movie purists referred to it using some other words such as “bastardization” and “cultural vandalism”.
Well-known instances of Internet inspired words are “spam” (unwanted E-mail), “emoticon” (textual icons depicting of emotion in email), and “netizen” (person who lives and breathes the Internet). Digitalization may seem to be the same thing as the well-worn word “digitization” but it is not. Digitization is a process by which electrical signals in the analog domain are converted to the digital domain. This word however does not capture the all-encompassing novelty of the digital world. Digitalization is, in this writer’s opinion, the socio-cultural phenomenon wrought from the mass scale digitization of everything digitizable.
Once upon a time, all electronics was analog. The analog domain was the domain of electrical signals that represented real world phenomenon, translated from reality to pulses of electricity. Consider the case of sound, sound is what we hear. Sound is the rapid fluctuation of pressure of surrounding material (typically air). When we speak, air molecules vibrate. This vibration causes the pressure of air to change rather rapidly. The change in pressure gets transmitted to neighboring molecules and the vibration spreads, in all directions causing the phenomenon of a sound wave.
When a sound wave impinges on a microphone, it makes a membrane vibrate. This membrane flutters in a magnetic field, causing tiny pulses of electricity to be generated. This electrical activity is the analog signal. The analog signal wavers faithfully as per the pressure transients in the air. When the pressure rises, so does the signal. How high and how fast the signal depends on the strength and frequency of the sound.
Analog signals can be amplified, transmitted, modulated, stored, retrieved and reconverted back to sound. However, every step of these processes introduces distortion or errors. An analog signal having amplitude of 1 volt can become 0.9 volts after processing. Hence accuracy is lost and quality deteriorates.
Preservation of quality was the first objective in the digitization of analog signals. The process of digitization is done by sampling the analog signal rapidly as time progresses and converting each sampled value into a number, and representing the number in binary form. Thus a simple analog signal becomes a mass of binary numbers. The mass of numbers can then be accurately converted back to the original analog signal.
The mass of numbers, or digital signal, has the property that it can be amplified, transmitted, modulated, stored, retrieved and reconverted without any change in any of the numbers and hence preserving the purity of the signal from the time it is created to the time it is used—regardless of how long it has been stored or how far it has traveled.
The first use of widespread digitization of sound was embraced by telephone communication and music reproduction. The long distance telephone lines are digital hence call quality is unaffected by distance. The CD has audio in digital form and hence the home listener can recover sound exactly as it recorded in the studio.
Digitization of sound had a major drawback—the amount of electrical signal that represents 1 minute of audio is many times higher than the amount of analog signal needed. Thus storage and transmission of digital is more substantially expensive. This barrier limited the use of digital signals to audio. Pictures and video contain so much analog signal that it was deemed impractical if not impossible to convert visual material to digital with reasonable expense.
The advent of cheap and fast computers suddenly changed this premise and thrusted us into the era of digitalization. Computers can “compress” digital signals, rendering huge data streams into a trickle. Storing and transmitting this trickle is cheap and yet it yields the quality of the digital domain. A regular analog CD holds about 50 minutes of music or 5 minutes of video. If we use the well-known MP3 compression to squeeze the music, a CD can hold over 500 minutes of high quality audio. Similar tricks allow a CD to hold 70 minutes of video (as in the VCD format). Recovering the audio or video from compressed digital media, requires a computer. But now, such computers can be built into the player, with minimal expense.
Would you like to take the controls of a jet fighter and spiral it down the caverns of the Grand Canyon? Not a problem, with the help of some neat toys such as computers, vision goggles, tactile chairs. One can do that without going anywhere near an aircraft or a canyon. Would you like to do the same with a real live partner from across the world? Not a problem. Of course the equipment needed for such experiences are not available at the corner electronics shop. It is not affordable by the common consumer. However that is today, in a few years this “virtual reality” magic may become quite commonplace. The underlying principle for enabling such an experience is the availability of digital data representing the visual and audio surroundings as well as the digital processing power needed to perform the real time jugglery of images and sound.
With the barriers of storing, manipulating and transmitting digitized data falling apart, the rush to digitization of everything has steamed ahead. Books, pictures, movies, literary works, music and almost everything imaginable that can be digitized have been digitized. Once digitized the result is data. Data is data—irrespective of source. Hence the same machines that can store and transmit voice can do pictures and video. This brings us to the new meaning of an old word “convergence”.
Convergence is the merging of all types of information into a common digital form. Convergence of all electrical impulses into digital is the underlying enabler of the digitalization phenomenon. A computer and an Internet connection is all that today’s consumer needs in order to send email, to receive pictures, to make phone calls, to do videoconferencing, to listen to music, to read books, to search libraries and to view movies. The computer made it possible to people to “get together” and exchange music—a phenomenon that made headlines with the advent of the service called Napster. Napster sent chills down the spine of the music industry and has been subsequently been shut down for legal and copyright issues. However, now that the genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard, if not impossible to stop it. Computers exchange information. Information is data. Data is the convergence of everything. Barriers mean nothing any more.
The versatility and economy of digitalization makes information available widely and cheaply. For example, a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica consists of about 30 massive volumes, weighing over 100 kgs and costs about $1,500. In digitized form, it fits on 1 CD (10 grams) and can be purchased for $20. The entire works of humanity, from all ages of history, written, spoken, photographic or movies can be made to fit in a room today—maybe in a little box tomorrow. Furthermore, this can be copied and distributed and made available to anyone with ease and accuracy. The resulting “democratization of information” has deep socio-cultural impact.
The future of the impact of the digitalized world is already quite apparent. People use email to exchange pictures and video. Web sites provide information, in written audible and visible form of things hitherto not communicable. Languages do not form barriers; all languages can be represented with equal ease in the digital world.
The digital world has moved on from the world of techno-inspired misfits, to the world of the normal human. People form digital communities. Communities are social groups of people with common interests. If one is interested in collecting artifacts from the Byzantine era, he or she can get in touch with the few other people from around the world interested in this activity. Then they can share stories, pictures and experiences. They can hold meetings, talk, exchange idea and mingle without leaving home. How effectively people use the computer to promote interests is quite astounding—and is a resounding tribute to convergence.
Digitalization has opened the floodgates of societies bound by distance and economics. The question is no longer how can we do it, but what can we do. The ensuing rush of the waters is sweeping away age-old ways of thinking, working and playing. Though much has changed since the convergence started, it has only been around for five, maybe seven years. Decades from now, the new ideas will bear fruit and the harvest will be something we cannot imagine yet.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha