Today, there is a movement of nostalgic technology. Young and old have been returning to technologies of the past, like film cameras, record players, typewriters, physical books and handwriting. I am a part of this movement, and wish to clarify a word I have become increasingly aware of as it is used to define these technologies. That word is Analog. Our culture uses this term to define any technology that is non-digital or old fashioned, but what does Analog really mean?
Let’s take a look at the definition of Analog….
We’ve all heard of an Analog clock, right? Let’s apply this definition to how a clock functions. A clock (the mechanism), represents time or time passing (the data) by measuring time according to the position of the continuous moving hands (continuous physical variable). It is an analogy for time. The measurement or representation is analogous or proportional to time itself.
The same can be said for a sundial. A sundial is also an analogy for time except it uses the sun’s position in the sky and a gnomon to cast a shadow.
Whereas Analog is a continuous representation of a variable, Digital uses numbers, specifically 1s and 0s, to represent a variable quantity. Most of us Millennials rely on the digital clock on our smartphones. The difference of a digital clock is that the time is not measured, it is not an approximation of time, but rather the exact time calculated by numbers.
Another example of Analog would be sound recording and records. The human voice itself is analog. What we hear come out of our mouths (the mechanism which produces data, according to our definition) is represented by a continuous wave of air pressure variations. In analog, recording the air pressure of a sound wave is converted to an analogous electrical signal through a microphone. Then the electrical signal vibrations are etched into grooves on a plastic disc.
Analog recordings is a representation or analogy of sound waves. Sound waves and analog recordings are continuous waves with an infinite amount of points or frequencies. In comparison, Digital recording converts the analog electrical signal into 1s and 0s. Digital sound recording doesn’t produce the entire original sound wave because it is non-continuous, limited to set numbers with empty spaces in between them.
Clocks and sound recording are truly analog, but what about other nostalgic tech? It’s safe to say that some nostalgic tech does not function according to the actual definition of analog. Handwriting, typewriters, physical books vs digital books, these things are not analog. Although there is no doubt they are nostalgic technologies. Some technologies are debatable, such as Film photography. You could argue that an image exposed onto film is analogous to the real thing. Although it doesn’t record the image in an analog way using measurement by a continuous variable, rather it is a chemical process.
What makes analog so desirable if our world has over time converted to digital? There are plenty of subjective opinions on this topic, but I would like to point out that there are actual objective pros and cons to some analog technologies.
For example, an objective con of analog sound recording is that it is more expensive to produce then digital because it requires a lot of equipment. Another con is that records degrade over time with continued use and can become damaged, whereas Digital mp3s will retain their sound quality. Also, newly pressed records are more expensive than purchasing digital music files.
A pro of analog recording is that you are listening to a truer representation of the actual sound, and for many people, this gives a more enjoyable listening experience that is worth the price.
Now having a clearer understanding of the term Analog we can see how it directly applies to nostalgic technologies that function in analog. This understanding also sheds light on why people couple this term with anything non-digital. Analog is analogous to real life representations, so in general, any non-digital technology will be truer to life, and truer to life technologies originate from the past, in which people are nostalgic.