The Digital Revolution

During my lifetime there has been a digital revolution.  Until mechanical computers most measurements were analogue.  I suppose people didn’t think about it, it was just the way you measured things!  Perhaps it is easiest to think about a clock face.  The hands move around the dial and cover every possibly position in each circuit.

Analogue and Digital

I can remember when digital watches first appeared.  You had to press a button to tell the time!  Analogue watches were always superior not only because they don’t need a button but also they are easier to read.  We read the angle between the hands and that is enough unless we need to speak the time.

The ticking of a clock perhaps divides time into discrete units but a single tick does not have to equal one second.  We still tell the time by glancing at the dial.

It is only through computers we have found a credible alternative to analogue measurements.  Today it seems natural to think of measurements as many small packets (quanta) of whatever we measure.  Quantum mechanics suggests space is granular because there are minimum amounts of distance, for example.

Machines can read analogue measurements but they are harder to manipulate.  Usually they convert them to digital and digital calculations usually offer a close enough approximation to analogue.  If we need more accuracy, we simply divide things up into finer grains.

If you are reading this on a computer screen, everything you can see is digital.  All the words, images, colours … all break down into digital, noughts and ones.

Programs and Applications

A single digital digit is a bit.  It has one of two values, 0 or 1.  Usually, computers process bits in groups of 8, called a byte.  (4 bits is a nibble, but you don’t need to know that!)  As each bit in a byte can be 0 or 1, a byte can have 256 values.  This is ample to represent the alphabet and various other punctuation symbols.

These are the basic building blocks from which everything else we see on the screen can be built.  It was a major breakthrough, when someone worked out computer programs can be expressed in bits.  So, the same noughts and ones that code as symbols and images on the screen, program the machine to generate that particular screen.

Programming Languages

Programming languages have similarly evolved.  It is in theory possible to program using noughts and ones.  However, no-one is likely to get very far.  Perhaps the earliest languages were assembly languages, where there is a one-to-one equivalence between the language and the basic digital code.  It is possible to program in assembly languages and they are perhaps still used to program new languages.  But there is little need for them.  Most people who code use a higher level language such as Algol or Basic or C!

But even that is no longer the limit.  These days most of us get by using little if any code.  With an application, such as a word processor, most of us have no need for code.

Notice how each step becomes the foundation for a new step.  Something new opens the door to innovative uses; applications change the real world and change is not always predictable.  Maybe the paperless office has not come about in the way some anticipated.  But compare a typical office today with an office 20 or 30 years ago.

Professionals and Amateurs

One big change is everyone types.  There was a time when touch typing was a valued skill.  Maybe it still is.  But most of us use keyboards and never bother to train in touch typing.  I didn’t and I mostly type by looking at the screen with only an occasional glance at the keys.

So a reporter used to write copy by hand and pass it to a typist.  Now they do their own typing, possibly in the place where the action is happening.  Everyone has a screen and uses it.

What I want to underline here is our relationship with machines has changed the way we work and how we relax.  Not only can we select how we entertain ourselves, not constrained by what’s on a few channels but also we use machines to generate entertainment in ways we were unable to a few years ago.  Most of us carry a video camera, even if we don’t use it.

We always use tools as to extend our bodies and now we have increased potential.  This has happened to the extent that many of us can do things that previously specialists did.  Whether the specialist was a touch typist or a film producer, we can do it because the potential is in our grasp.

The specialist these days must show they can do it better than we can or save us time by doing it for us.

The amazing thing is digital technology, ultimately on billions of noughts and ones, powers these innovations.  It is important to hold this in mind as we turn to the topic of artificial intelligence.

How has the digital revolution supported local economies?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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