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Monday, December 21, 2009

Going Digital

What is extraordinary about my lifetime is that I will have witnessed the birth of the home computer industry and (if things go well) the complete conversion of all relevant media forms to digital formats separate from any particular physical "carrier" medium.

In recent days I have written about the still-problematic e-book industry as well as the move toward online video content. Fittingly, today I found an article by Matt Buchanan covering both these stories in the context of Apple's business innovations. Before getting to that story, though, I thought this is a good time to step back and gaze at the landscape.

The basic art forms are these: music, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, theater, film, and architecture. There are certain hybrids, like opera (musical theater) and illustrated fiction.

Art presented as a structure (sculpture, architecture) may be photographed and filmed, and only in these derivative forms digitized. (One may view a photograph of the Parthenon, but obviously viewing the photo is not at all the same experience as visiting the place.) Performance art may be recorded in audio or on film, and the recorded presentations may be digitized. Going to hear a symphony is a different experience than listening to a recording of a symphony, though the audio quality might be very similar.

Paintings obviously may be digitized, and the similarity of the digitized piece to the original, while generally fairly close, varies significantly by art work. The School of Athens is fantastic on a modern computer screen, but it simply does not compare with the real thing, whereas the Mona Lisa is nearly as impressive digitally (I write as I duck the stones).

Literature is readily digitized, for the same reasons that literature can be translated and read aloud. Literature is the most purely conceptual form of art, and its mode is language, and language is inherently separable from any particular medium (which is not to discount the qualities of a musty old book).

Film inherently converts a performance to a two-dimensional image, so the digitization process is perfectly natural. Some modern "films" may begin with hand drawings but develop primarily digital animation.

For our purposes, the upshot is that film, music, and literature are the most-easily digitized art forms, with paintings following behind. Regardless of how we categorize photography in terms of art, obviously it has joined film in making the natural jump to digital formats. (General retail outlets don't even sell film cameras any more.)

The basic modes of mass communication are text, photographs, speaking, and video (I'll say rather than film, which is now mostly outdated).

The above facts indicate that the modes of digitizing the fine arts match up pretty will with the modes of digitizing mass communication. Whether we are talking about fine arts or mass communication, in the digital world we are basically talking about text, still images, audio, and video. Any digital content basically combines those four sorts of presentation. Basically, if you can see it or hear it, where the seeing or hearing is the point of the thing, it can be digitized. (Whether the sense of touch can be effectively digitized remains to be seen, but a world where more than a few would want such a thing would be a very different world from our own.)

Music has essentially gone digital now. My first album was a record, as in a disc of plastic etched to stimulate a needle. (Genesis, baby, as in the band.) Interestingly, I've never actually looked up the term "analog" until just now: "of or pertaining to a mechanism that represents data by measurement of a continuous physical variable, as voltage or pressure." Anyway, within my lifetime music has gone from entirely analog to almost entirely digital.

Moreover, music has largely made the break from a particular, dedicated medium. While the music CD remains popular, increasingly people buy music online and save it to a hard drive or flash drive.

Video similarly has largely gone digital. Due to its increased file size it remains more tied to the DVD, though this is rapidly changing. My step-dad had one of those VHS video recorders you had to rest on your shoulder to operate. I own a digital video camera that records directly to flash memory. YouTube allows pretty much anybody to upload any video that's under ten minutes, while a variety of services display movies and "television" shows online.

Obviously photography has gone digital. While 35 millimeter film was the standard consumer-grade film in my childhood, today I can't name anybody I know who owns a film camera.

Strangely, text, while far more easily digitized than audio, photos, or video, remains largely bound to ink and pulp. They still print newspapers and books in large quantities. The stickiness in converting text to digital formats is funny given that the analog formats are created from digital source files. Word processors were among the first computer applications.

My mother used a real typewriter in college. I mean, you hit the key, and it caused a metal arm to strike the paper through an inked ribbon. No electricity! When I was in high school, I learned how to type on an electric typewriter; the metal arms were replaced by a rotating ball, but the mark was still made by a metal form striking the paper. Now I don't know anybody who uses anything other than a computer to generate polished text. (Well, I've met two people who still write by hand, a novelist and a philosopher, but they lie well outside the norm. Of course somebody then transforms their scribbles to digital text.)

So why is it that practically everyone generates text digitally but then many still convert it to ink on pulp? There are two main reasons, one involving technology and the other business organization. The technological problem is that reading text on computer screens tends to create eye strain (as I am already experiencing in the writing of this post). It's a lot easier to sit down for several hours and read an ink-on-paper book than it is to read a digital display of the same text. But the new eye-friendly e-readers seem to be on the road to solving this problem.

The second problem is that nobody has yet figured out a great way to sell e-books or profitably publish news online. I think it extremely likely that some combination of business leaders will solve all of these problems within the next few years. I think that, within the next decade or so, printed newspapers will be mostly gone and that the paper-on-ink book industry will look a lot like today's record industry.

Whether we look at video, audio, still images, or text, the trend is the same: people will no longer buy a physical good, they will buy a digital file online and store it on some sort of data drive.

Today I went to Target and spent just over $15 to purchase a four gigabyte "thumb" drive. I loaded it with videos, photos, audio files, database files, and text files, then dropped the device into my pocket. We no longer need dedicated physical objects to store these things. We buy them via an energy stream, then we store them on a universal storage device and enjoy them via some software program running on a gizmo.

I know that techies have already rolled their eyes and closed this page in annoyance, but I stand in awe of the digital revolution that has occurred in just a few years. These simple, obvious, and mundane facts all around us mark a turning point for our species.

As for Buchanan, he reports that Apple appears to be gearing up to expand its online video market and its small-sized computer market. As Philip Elmer-DeWitt indicates for Money, Apple's "Tablet" and associated deals may revolutionize the e-book industry.

Very soon digital content via the internet will be the norm, and records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, newsprint, and pulp books will become quaint (and even eccentric) throwbacks to an earlier age.

Update: I was just poking around at the Cato Institute's web page, and I noticed that the outfit is selling Tom Palmer's new book as an e-book for $14. This is available through Kindle for $9.99. However, I called Cato and was assured their digital books are straight pdfs, and to me that is well worth the extra four bucks.)

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