by ZoeB, 2006
A brief look at the advantages of digitising information, and the repercussions of these advantages.
There are several problems with analogue media which are resolved
by their digital counterparts. While it's hard to put an exact
figure on them, as they are so intertwined, there are roughly three
main areas in which analogue media are less than perfect: firstly,
they cannot be efficiently organised (stored, retrieved, indexed,
searched, filtered or manipulated); secondly, each type of information
is bound to a different physical medium (such as text and images to
ink and paper or microfilm, and sound to a groove or strip of magnetic
tape); thirdly, and most importantly, they cannot be perfectly copied.
In the Beginning
As digital microprocessors (along with storage devices such as hard
drives) are the technology that enables the organisation and
manipulation of digitised media, it makes sense that the first thing
to be fed into them was machine code instructions - the very thing
that brings them to life, giving them a task to perform. It was a
group of intelligent, anarchistic people that had a passion for
writing these instructions, or programs. They called themselves
hackers, long before the word attained illegal connotations. They
believed in sharing more than they believed in money or power, and
they generally distrusted authority and bureaucracy. It is no
surprise, then, that these people's programs were exchanged freely
for the good of the community. Everyone was free to copy, modify
and improve everyone else's programs.1
After the microprocessors' native machine codes, the first medium
to be translated into a digital format was English text. Using
ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, seven
ones and zeros could be grouped together to represent any single
letter, digit, punctuation mark or spacing present in the English
language. This enabled computers with even modest amounts of memory
to be able to accept, store and display English text.2
The Internet has facilitated the publishing and distribution of
digital information in a way few people would have dared to hope was
possible. No longer do files have to be spread slowly, as each
individual copies the most interesting knowledge in their collection
onto friends' floppy disks when they visit, who in turn make copies
for their friends (a method sometimes referred to as Sneakernet).
No longer do people upload their files to a handful of bulletin board
systems, then wait for them to slowly propagate throughout the
On USENET newsgroups or the World Wide Web, for instance, you can
write a story, review, or essay and make it immediately available
to the public (although in the case of the Web, you need to ask
someone else to link to your page before anyone will be able to find
it). Unless explicitly told not to, automated software will also
read it, archive it for posterity and help people find it.
This is why the Internet may even be more important than the printing
press: it allows anyone with access to it to be an author, rather
than merely a passive reader. Everyone's voice can be heard.
For the first time in history, we may actually have the problem of
recording too much information. It seems logical to predict that
filtering useful information from the noise of everybody voicing an
opinion on everything may become one of the most valuable services
of this era.
To give merely a very quick glimpse of how digital media are easier
to navigate than their analogue counterparts, let's just look at a
computer's ability to search text. If you've ever had to skim read
a book several times in order to find a specific quote that you know
is in there somewhere, you know how frustrating it can be.
Computers take the work out of searching to the extent where you can
just type something like "egrep -n 'What\? A great man\?'
beyond_good_and_evil.txt" to make the computer instantly report that
the quote in question is on the two thousand, six hundred and thirtieth
line of the digitised book. While the language used to perform the
search can take a while to master, it is still quicker (and more
intellectually stimulating) to learn how to ask a computer where a
string of text is than to find it yourself.
Search engines that comb the Web can be even more useful, telling
you which pages contain the text you're looking for even though you'd
never heard of those pages or even their authors before, and letting
you view them with just a single click. Similarly, search engines
that archive USENET newsgroup posts can search over twenty years'
worth of messages and show you just the ones that contain the phrase
you were looking for.
Computers have come a long way since the days when ASCII was a new
standard. More and more, people are switching to Unicode, a
multilingual standard that enables every known written language,
from Arabic to Yi, to be digitised. This is certainly more in line
with the ideal of knowledge being shared by everyone, rather than a
With their ever-increasing processing power, however, computers have
now become able to store media much more complex than plain text.
The use of bitmap graphics allows computers to represent any given
colour using numbers, enabling them to use a mosaic style grid to
represent any two dimensional picture. Using scanners, printers,
graphics cards and now even digital cameras, this allows them to
see, store, manipulate, display and print out any picture, from fine
art to pornography or even your holiday photos.
Thanks to pulse code modulation, a method of translating the position
of a speaker cone into numbers, computers can also now record, store,
manipulate and play back any sound. This has not only resulted in
the creation of the high fidelity medium of CDs and (together with
the Internet) vastly increased the sharing of music amongst people,
but has also transformed the cumbersome act of splicing audiotapes
together into the much easier act of digitally sampling sounds, which
has shaped the art of music composition itself.
While each of these is good in its own right, the ability to seamlessly
combine different media such as text, images, sounds and video
footage, all on the same storage device, provides even more
It used to be the case that different types of information - text,
sounds, pictures, and video clips - were stored on different types
of physical storage devices - paper, vinyl records, tapes and so on.
You could copy a sound from one audio cassette tape to another, for
instance, but you couldn't easily transcribe it onto paper.
This is not the case with digital media. If a storage device is
capable of storing binary data, then it does not matter what all
those ones and zeros represent. All types of information are treated
equally, and all can be recorded onto any medium. A floppy disk,
for example, is equally well suited to storing a book, a few seconds'
worth of sound, or several pictures. Space permitting, any type of
information can be stored on any type of storage device.
If information has transcended any single physical medium, then it
follows that it will never be bound to an obsolete format and fade
The main exception to this is machine code, which is written in a language specific to a particular model of microprocessor. However, it should be possible to emulate the processor on one of its successors.
The other trap to watch out for is getting locked into a proprietary
format that won't be around forever, then eventually discovering
that no software can read that format anymore. Sticking with
popular, older formats that are as simple as possible should help
avoid this. Plain text files are a safer bet than word processor
documents, and uncompressed pictures and sounds are easier to decode
than their smaller counterparts, making it more likely that people will continue to create software to view and listen to them.
Once a novel, album or painting has been digitised, it can be copied
to the latest medium as soon as it exists. If and when the old
medium becomes obsolete, the actual data it contains are transferred
to the new medium, and the contents live on.3
As long as someone is willing to invest enough time into transferring
data from an old digital medium to a new one, and the old medium
hasn't degraded too much to be readable, it will always be possible
to transfer it. As each medium becomes more reliable than the last,
transferring the data should only get easier. As each medium has a
greater capacity than the last, there should always be room for all
information that has historical value.
Digital technology and society
One of the main problems with digital technology is a political one:
it is now trivially easy to copy any information and give it to any
person. It is even possible to swap files with anonymous strangers.
The hacker mindset encourages this, believing in the freedom to
access, copy and modify any information that would benefit the public
or advance the state of the art.4
On the other extreme, many people - especially those concerned with
the profits of large corporations - have invested a lot in the
principle that information, be it entertainment such as music and
films, or useful knowledge such as dictionaries and maps, should not
be free. They believe that the owner of the original work (nearly
always a corporation, not the original artist) should be paid royalties
for each copy sold, and that the people buying copies of the information
should only be allowed to use it in certain ways.5
These two philosophies are clearly at odds with each other: corporations
want to encrypt the information they sell you, allowing the software
they sell you to decrypt it, but not allowing you to save the decrypted
version, as you would be able to do whatever you wanted with it;
authors of free software, on the other hand, want you to be able to
use the information in any way you wish, as long as it doesn't get
in the way of other people's rights to also use it any way they wish.
This is why free software inherently doesn't decrypt DRM-shackled
information: if it did, you would be able to see exactly how it
decrypts it, save the decrypted version, and do whatever you want
with it. Corporations want to prevent you from being able to do
this at all costs.
Although it is futile to predict whether we will end up in a utopia
where anybody can improve upon anyone else's work, a dystopia where
computers will obey the corporations that wrote their software instead
of the users that own and use them, or somewhere in between, it looks
certain that one way or another, copyright laws are going to change
a lot in the near future.
Brave New World
With all this in mind, calling this period in history the "information
age" may be more than mere hyperbole; we are starting to navigate
something as simple and abstract as information itself with as much
enthusiasm as we previously started to explore space. Unlike space
travel, however, this is already an arena in which everyone with
access to the Internet, not just the privileged elite, can participate.
As long as the system of distribution remains decentralised, and
everyone is allowed the freedom of speech, this age may prove to be
a liberating time.
1. For a good example of this, see the evolution of the Spacewar
game in Steven Levy's book Hackers. Steve "Slug" Russell wrote the
first version of it, with some help from Bob Saunders. Even after
they finished making it, Peter Samson improved the map of stars in
the background to actually make it accurate, and Dan Edwards added
a big star in the middle of the screen that gave the game gravity.
These additions and improvements continued until the game was
2. Project Gutenberg is a good example of people preserving valuable
texts by digitising them. Its volunteers and employees have translated
many classic books, from A Christmas Carol to Ulysses, into the
digital realm. Even when the first editions have long since faded,
hundreds of copies of the digitised versions will live on, all of
them literally identical to the first publicly released digital
3. For example, Henry Spencer began archiving posts to USENET
newsgroups in 1981 using a three hundred baud modem and some forty
megabyte magnetic tapes. Ten years later, he had amassed a hundred
and twenty megabytes' worth of data, and Bruce Jones paid him a visit
to transfer the data for his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of
USENET. After a lot of time, money and effort, they managed to
transfer the data to a more modern medium, and the whole archive is
now a part of Google Groups.
4. The GNU project both exemplifies and articulates this extremely
well. When finished, it will be a whole operating system that people
are free to run for any purpose, study, copy to their friends and
5. Already, you can download songs from corporations that you are
not allowed to back up as much as you'd like for your own use, cannot
sell second hand, and can only play on devices made by the corporation
you bought the songs from because they refuse to license the technology
to decrypt the songs to anyone else. While this prevents people who
bought the music from sharing it with their friends or selling it
second hand, and prevents them listening to the songs they have
bought on a rival corporation's music player or free software music
player, it does nothing to stop organised crime syndicates churning
out pirated copies of music on a large scale, as they use special
duplicating equipment that individuals cannot afford and - unless
they happen to create their own original CDs - have no use for.
On to The Digital Revolution, Part Two: E-books