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ESSAY: Analog vs. Digital

The basic premise of this thesis is that drawing is one of the most simple and yet most effective means of communicating and developing abstract ideas. In this world of ever-increasing reliance on technological solutions to issues, it would be unwise to overlook the efficiency of simple, expedient, analog modes of explanation. This essay is not an argument against the importance or necessity of digital technologies or methods, but rather a chance to explain the difference between the increasingly precise, digital world that we are creating and our relative, context-reliant, analog human nature. In The Invisible Computer, Don Norman states:


“It is perfectly proper and reasonable for machines to use digital encodings for their internal workings. Machines do better with digital encoding. The problem comes about in the form of interaction between people and machines. People do best with signals and information that fit the way they perceive and think, which is analogous to the real world. Machines do best with signals and information that are suited for the way they function, which means digital, rigid, precise” |Norman, 1999|.

Our most sophisticated systems, created by humans, behave quite unlike human beings. This is understandable, as humans are unable of being precise down to thousandths of an inch or accurately measuring parts-per-million, however these systems are based on computing and mathematics where precision is the rule. And therein lies the fault with these rigid, standardized processes when dealing with abstract concepts: they are mathematic attempts at replicating the actual world around us.

A digital camera, for example, will never be as true to human vision as one that uses film because the image that it produces has been compiled by turning analog signals (light) into digital representations of those signals (pixels) and aggregating them into a patchwork picture. In the best conditions this translation is quite effective and therefore unnoticeable, but as light conditions worsen, the digital “brain” of the camera uses intense algorithms to deduce what color pixel to place in the areas that it can’t quite make out -- leading to “noise” in the final photograph. Film photography, on the other hand, needs no translation stage -- the shutter opens and the available light and color (as reflected by the objects at which the camera is pointed) creates an imprint on the light-sensitive film. We will not discuss the merits of compressing and storing digital files versus photo film, but as a means of “capturing” the real world around us, the analog minimizes the possibility for visual information to be lost during the translation from world-to-film.

Drawing is one of the most natural methods of exchanging ideas because it is representative of how we actually interact with the world.

When dealing with abstract concepts (such as time, size, mood, etc.), digital representations lack relativity, or context, to the broader scope of whatever is being discussed or determined. In his book, Information Graphics, Wilbur Burke expresses his appreciation for representing time with an analog clock. He notes that “we relate the present moment to the larger framework of before or after noon, to the context of the present hour and, finally, to a particular five-minute span.” He continues by positing that this sense of context “accords with the way in which we normally sense and observe things, relating the particular to the general, whether consciously or unconsciously” |Burke, 1998|. If an analog clock presents time along with context, it can be argued that a digital clock is absolute: it tells the truth, and nothing but the truth, but perhaps not the whole truth . A typical digital clock delivers what we want to know (the time) down to the most accurate measurement (tenths or even hundredths of a second), but not much else. If we wish to know how long ago something happened, we must perform a mathematic (digital) operation, whereas with an analog clock we can visually confirm how far the minute or hour hand has moved since that specific occurrence. Imagine, for a moment, that you have never before seen a clock. If you were to encounter a digital clock, what would you make of it? A series of numbers, constantly changing one at a time until suddenly two or three of the numbers change at once! Contrast this with encountering an analog clock; after 60 seconds it becomes clear that this cyclic motion resembles an increment of a larger system. Visually, the clock face depicts the scale of what’s being measured and how to place the immediate bits of information on that scale.

As a final comparison of analog (relative) and digital (precise), we will look briefly at the history of the London Underground map. This ubiquitous map, with its definitive graphic layout and far-reaching influence on subway maps around the world, is a wonderful example of choosing representation over resemblance in an attempt to make absolute information graspable by commuters on the “Tube”. Since its inception in the 1860s, maps accompanying the London Underground were largely geographical maps overlaid with the routes of the separate lines, becoming increasingly complex as new lines were added or extended. In 1933 Henry Beck, an electrical draftsman, applied his knowledge of electrical diagrams and created the first schematically-based map of the Tube. According to John Walker in Communicating Design: Essays in Visual Communication, “Beck realized that clarity and geographical truth were antithetical to one another and that geographical accuracy had to be abandoned in favor of clarity. In other words, Beck’s choice of diagram rather than map was the result of an evaluation of different modes of representation in relation to the needs of the traveling public” |Triggs, 1995|. Making a break from the geographically-based maps which preceded his own required Beck to distill out the most important information that one traveling on the London Underground might wish to know: he gave priority to easily identifying what was next or before, or how many stops until the desired one, rather than cardinal direction or curvature of the subway tunnel or the exact distance between stops. He chose relativity (analog) over precision (digital), and his approach made the London Underground map one of the most lasting, usable, and recognizable tools for public navigation in history.

Here I wish to set the foundation for why drawing matters to human beings and why, with all the great advances in precise, digital technologies, something as simple and elementary as drawing will remain relevant and utilized on a world-wide scale. We are analog creatures; we operate by comparing and contrasting one option against another, giving preference to experience rather than logic, and rely heavily on our perception of the way the world works around us rather than explicit descriptions of every minute detail. We are able to assemble the parts into a whole without being consciously aware that we are doing so, and in the process we are able to overlook or compensate for gaps in information. When we attempt to exchange ideas or abstract concepts, drawing is one of the most natural methods of doing so because it is representative of the way we actually interact with the world around us, and it creates the experience of those interactions. This notion of human-as-analog will resurface later as we discuss ways that might maximize drawing’s ability to create an environment of conversation when exchanging ideas.

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