Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff, an exclusive Boing Boing preview

201009241003 Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age is the new book by Douglas Rushkoff, an author, documentarian, media theorist, and great friend of all of us at Boing Boing.

This week, we are pleased to have Douglas as a guest blogger. To kick things off, here's a full chapter from his book. And for the remainder of the week, Boing Boing readers will get 20% off the price of the book or ebook in addition to whatever discount may already exist (currently 15%, for a total of 35% off). Just type BOING in the discount box on the final ordering screen. -- Mark

3Choice Ink Chapter 3: CHOICE
You May Always Choose "None of the Above"

In the digital realm, everything is made into a choice. The medium is biased toward the discreet. This often leaves out things we have not chosen to notice or record, and forces choices when none need to be made.

The difference between an analog record and a digital CD is really quite simple. The record is the artifact of a real event that happened in a particular time and place. A musician plays an instrument while, nearby, a needle cuts a groove in a wax disk. The sound vibrates the needle, leaving a physical record of the noise that can be turned into a mold and copied. When someone else passes a needle over the jagged groove on one of the copies, the original sound emerges. No one has to really know anything about the sound for this to work. It's just a physical event - an impression left in matter.

A CD, on the other hand, is not a physical artifact but a symbolic representation. It's more like text than it is like sound. A computer is programmed to measure various parameters of the sound coming from a musician's instrument. The computer assigns numerical values, many times a second, to the sound in an effort to represent it mathematically. Once the numerical - or "digital" - equivalent of the recording is quantified, it can be transferred to another computer which then synthesizes the music from scratch based on those numbers.

The analog recording is a physical impression, while the digital recording is a series of choices. The former is as smooth and continuous as real time; the latter is a series of numerical snapshots. The record has as much fidelity as the materials will allow. The CD has as much fidelity as the people programming its creation thought to allow. The numbers used to represent the song - the digital file - is perfect, at least on its own terms. It can be copied exactly, and infinitely.

In the digital recording, only the dimensions of the sound that can be measured and represented in numbers are taken into account. Any dimensions that the recording engineers haven't taken into consideration are lost. They are simply not measured, written down, stored, and reproduced. It's not as if they can be rediscovered later on some upgraded playback device. They are gone.

Given how convincingly real a digital recording can seem - especially in comparison with a scratchy record - this loss may seem trivial. After all, if we can't hear it, how important could it be? Most of us have decided it's not so important at all. But early tests of analog recordings compared to digital ones revealed that music played back on a CD format had much less of a positive impact on depressed patients than the same recording played back on a record. Other tests showed that digitally recorded sound moved the air in a room significantly differently than analog recordings played through the same speakers. The bodies in that room would, presumably, also experience that difference - even if we humans can't immediately put a name or metric on exactly what that difference is.

So digital audio engineers go back and increase the sampling rates, look to measure things about the sound they didn't measure before, and try again. If the sampling rate and frequency range are "beyond the capability of the human ear" then it is presumed the problem is solved. But the problem is not that the digital recording is not good enough - it is that it's a fundamentally different phenomenon from the analog one. The analog really just happens - the same way the hands of a clock move slowly around the dial, passing over the digits in one smooth motion. The digital recording is more like a digital clock, making absolute and discreet choices about when those seconds are changing from one to the next.

These choices - these artificially segmented decision points - appear very real to us. They are so commanding, so absolute. Nothing in the real world is so very discreet, however. We can't even decide when life begins and ends, much less when a breath is complete or when the decay of a musical note's echo has truly ended - if it ever does. Every translation of a real thing to the symbolic realm of the digital requires that such decisions be made.

The digital realm is biased toward choice, because everything must be expressed in the terms of a discreet, yes-or-no, symbolic language. This, in turn, often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere. We must come to recognize the increased number of choices in our lives as largely a side-effect of the digital; we always have the choice of making no choice at all.

All this real and illusory choice - all these unnecessary decision points - may indeed be a dream come true for marketers desperate to convince us that our every consumer preference matters. But it's not their fault. They are merely exploiting digital technology's pre-existing bias for yes/no decisions.

After all, the very architecture of the digital is numbers; every file, picture, song, movie, program, and operating system is just a number. (Open a video or picture of a loved one in your text editor to see it, if you're interested.) And to the computer, that number is actually represented as a series of 1's and 0's. There's nothing in-between that 1 and 0, since a computer or switch is either on or off. There's no in-between. All the messy stuff in-between yes and no, on or off, just doesn't travel down wires, through chips, or in packets. For something to be digital, it has to be expressed in digits.

It's in that translation from the blurry and nondescript real world of people and perceptions to the absolutely defined and numerical world of the digital where something might be lost. Exactly where in the spectrum between yellow and red is that strange shade of orange? 491 Terahertz? A little more? 491.5? Or .6? Somewhere in-between that? How exact is enough? That's anyone's call, but what must be acknowledged first is that someone is, indeed, calling it. A choice is being made.

This isn't a bad thing; it's just how computers work. It's up to the cyborg philosophers of the future to tell us whether everything in reality is just information, reducible to long strings of just two digits. The issue here is that even if our world is made of pure information, we don't yet know enough about that data to record it. We don't know all the information, or how to measure it. For now, our digital representations are compromises - symbol systems that record or transmit a great deal about what matters to us at any given moment. Better digital technology merely makes those choices at increasingly granular levels.

And while our computers are busy making discreet choices about the rather indiscreet and subtle world in which we live, many of us are busy, too - accommodating our computers by living and defining ourselves in their terms. We are making choices not because we want to, but because our programs demand them.

For instance, information online is stored in databases. A database is really just a list - but the computer or program has to be able to be able to parse and use what's inside the list. This means someone - the programmer - must choose what questions will be asked and what options the user will have in responding: Man or Woman? Married or Single? Gay or Straight? It gets very easy to feel left out. Or old: 0-12, 13-19, 20-34, 35-48, or 49-75? The architecture of databases requires the programmer to pick the categories that matter, and at the granularity that matters to his or his employer's purpose.

As users, all we see is a world of choice - and isn't choice good? Here are 100 possible looks for your mail browser, 20 possible dispositions each with 20 subsets for you to define yourself on a dating site, 100 options for you to configure your car, life insurance, or sneaker. When it doesn't feel overwhelming, it feels pretty empowering - at least for a while. More choice is a good thing, right? We equate it with more freedom, autonomy, self-determination, and democracy.

But it turns out more choice doesn't really do all this. We all want the freedom to choose, and the history of technology can easily be told as the story of how human beings gave themselves more choices: the choice to live in different climates, to spend our time doing things other than hunting for food, to read at night, and so on. Still, there's a value set attending all this choice, and the one choice we're not getting to make is whether or not to deal with all this choice.

Choice stops us, requiring we make a decision in order to move on. Choice means selecting one option while letting all the others go. Imagine having to choose your college major before taking a single course? Each option passed over is an opportunity cost - both real and imagined. The more choices we make (or are forced to make) the more we believe our expectations will be met. But in actual experience, our pursuit of choice has the effect of making us less engaged, more obsessive, less free, and more controlled. And forced choice is no choice at all, whether it's a hostage being forced to choose which of her children can survive, or a social network user being forced to tell the world whether she is married or single.

Digital technology's bias toward forced choices dovetails all too neatly with our roles as consumers, reinforcing this notion of choice as somehow liberating while turning our interactive lives into fodder for consumer research. Web sites and programs become laboratories where our keystrokes and mouse clicks are measured and compared, our every choice registered for its ability to predict and influence the next choice.

The more we accept each approximation as accurate, the more we reinforce these techniques from our machines and their programmers. Whether it's an online bookstore suggesting books based on our previous selections (and those of thousands of other consumers with similar choice histories), or a consumer research firm using kids' social networking behaviors to predict which ones will someday self-identify as gay (yes, they can do that now), choice is less about giving people what they want than getting them to take what the choice-giver has to sell.

Meanwhile, the more we learn to conform to the available choices, the more predictable and machine-like we become ourselves. We train ourselves to stay between the lines, like an image dragged onto a "snap-to" grid: it never stays quite where we put it, but jerks up and over to the closest available place on the predetermined map. Likewise, through our series of choices about the news we read, feeds to which we subscribe, and websites we visit, we create a choice filter around ourselves. Friends and feeds we may have chosen arbitrarily or because we were forced in the past, soon become the markers through which our programs and search engines choose what to show us next. Our choices narrow our world, as the infinity of possibility is lost in the translation to binary code.

One emerging alternative to forced, top-down choice in the digital realm is "tagging." Instead of a picture, blog entry or anything being entirely defined by its pre-determined category, users who come upon are free (but not obligated) to label it themselves with a tag. The more people who tag it a certain way, the more easily others looking for something with that tag will find it. While traditional databases are not biased toward categorizing things in an open-ended, bottom-up fashion, they are capable of operating this way. They needn't be limited by the original choices programmed into them, but can be programmed instead to expand their dimensions and categories based on the tags and preferences of the people using them. They can be made to conform to the way people think, instead of demanding we think like they do. It's all in the programming, and our awareness of how these technologies will be biased if we do not intervene consciously in their implementation.

Meanwhile, we are always free to withhold choice, resist categorization, or even go for something not on the list of available options. You may always choose none of the above. Withholding choice is not death. Quite on the contrary, it is one of the few things distinguishing life from its digital imitators.

Illustration by Leland Purvis

Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age


  1. Its has been decades since vinyl records were made in the manner he describes. There is no immediate cutting of masters during recording these days.

  2. Interesting, but can’t more choices allow a user to get things to work the way they want? Which, incidentally, is why I use Linux. Sort of like drawing your own lines to stay in?

  3. Yay, go audiophile bs. A naive implementation of digital audio will sound worse than analog – but get high quality ad (and da) converters plus good dithering and a sampling rate above the nyquist frequency, and it’s going to be more accurate in the audible range than any analog sound system ever could. If you like the sound of analog (meaning the flaws that analog sound will always have), that’s another thing entirely – just remember that some of us like the sound of digital.

  4. Yikes, typo in the second sentence. If he’s talking about analog versus digital, then he means “discrete”, not “discreet”. Kind of an off-putting mistake, that. Maybe I’ll wait for the revised edition?

  5. “Digital” only exists in mathematics. Computers, CD’s, and other “digital” devices are really analog devices. We pretend they are digital and layer on all sorts of error correction to try to make them perform like the mathematical model. But ask any computer overclocker, and he’ll tell you about the limits before those 1’s and 0’s blur so much they can’t be told apart.

    All these arguments about digital vs analog is modern animism. Just trying to ascribe spirits to inanimate object. “None of the Above” isn’t unique to analog. Choosing none of the above is possible with digital and analog. Both may or may not have consequences. But there’s nothing special about the consequences he talks about. Drive too far to the left or right and you crash and die. You’ve been trained not to kill yourself. Analog limits! 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th gear. Analog limits!

    Sorry, I didn’t get my caffeine this morning.

  6. I understand the point he’s trying to make here, but his description of the analog recording process is laughably simplistic.”The original sound emerges” doesn’t happen with analog recordings any more than it does with digital. The only difference is that the choices made in analog recording are mediated by a different set of technologies than the choices made in digital recording. Yes, digital recording is somewhat more flexible overall, but both technologies have their strengths and limitations. It’s easy to look back at old technology and erase all the complexities that went into it, which is what he’s doing here. He’s absolutely right about the proliferation of choices with digital technology, but I don’t think digital recording is a good analogy for that.

  7. If we’re going to nit pick. Then it would be “after which I stopped reading.” Stop worshiping yourself and your computer and think a little. Oh, and what if it wasn’t a typo but an errant auto correct, how does that factor into computers guiding our ‘choices’?.

    1. That’s a mistake I made because I’m not a native speaker. A computer will not catch those mistakes reliably for a very long time.

      However, my point wasn’t the one you imagined it was, but that the type of analogue recording hasn’t existed for a long time. To assume that “analogue” processing transmits an “original” after dozens of filters, tapes, etc is mysticism, nothing more.

  8. I’d like to amplify bassplayinben, and point out that while Mr. Rushkoff is a wonderful writer and brilliant thinker, his basic premise here is horribly flawed.

    Both the vinyl record AND the CD are symbolic representations. The record is a mechanical representation, home to a wide range of very well known flaws and limitations, just as the CD is.

    But Mr. Rushkoff goes on to cite some studies about the effects of the 2 systems (vinyl vs CD) on depressed people and the activity of the air in a room. Some linking would be good here, but please: Depressed people might not benefit from change, and the perfect breathless skipless scratchless CD audio may not be initially recognized for it’s difference, surely the moment the familiar qualities of the “vinyl sound” are played, they felt more at ease? And obviously the room-air is going to be different, at any energy-level easy enough to measure, the artifacts of even perfect vinyl reproduction are going to have an effect. (RIAA curve, anyone?)

    And every single decision made by the Cabal of CD Engineers, was made by their predecessors. In fact, they had the benefit of history to start from. The mechanical production process, not to mention the electronic-magnetic recording process, was filled with compromises to the storage media, wiring, controls, transducers and yes, even the humans doing the input. I lived through the tail-end of the full-analog, large theatrical sound systems, and they were awe-inspiring in a nerdy way, but thank god they’re gone.

    I’m nowhere near Mr. Rushkoff’s reputation, intelligence or wisdom, and there are many fascinating points in this article, but the idolatry of the antique is simply foolish. He chooses to criticize the selectivity of one compromise while ignoring the giant sea of compromised choices in the other. Analog had a place, it was the best we could do at the time. Does this affect the core of his article? Perhaps not, but I have to let my blood-pressure lower a bit before finishing the article, because by the time I reached paragraph 6, I had to vent.

  9. What a load of drivel.
    “In the digital recording, only the dimensions of the sound that can be measured and represented in numbers are taken into account. Any dimensions that the recording engineers haven’t taken into consideration are lost.”
    This of course also applies to analogue recordings. If the engineer did not put a microphone in front of the singer than that dimension is also lost. I’m also unaware of any property of a sound wave that cannot be exactly represented in numbers.
    This whole piece is nonsense.

    1. The metaphor is inappropriately used, but there is something to be said about how the granularity at which a digital tool operates effects how you structure thought and thus make choices. Theoretically everything can be represented by numbers, nevertheless in practice information is always lost. Even in a FLAC recording.

      Rushkoff might be waxing a bit of poetic, but his point regarding choice is an interesting one.

  10. “In the digital realm, everything is made into a choice. The medium is biased toward the unnoticeable (nature of these decisions). This often leaves out things we have not chosen to notice or record, and forces choices when none need to be made.”

    “In the digital realm, everything is made into a choice. The medium is biased toward the separate (nature of these decisions). This often leaves out things we have not chosen to notice or record, and forces choices when none need to be made.”

  11. I agree, drivel. If there’s a deeper principle to be made, this was not a successful example of it. If there isn’t, it’s flat-out wrong, verging on Not Even Wrong.

  12. Hmmm… “Imagine having to choose your college major before taking a single course?” It’s not so bad. Every undergraduate in the UK has to do exactly that.

  13. As an audio engineer and teacher, I have to object to this tired comparison of analog and digital recording. This is an old, incorrect saw used in the decade during which analog was supplanted by digital methods (the 90s) by the old-timers who – as all old-timers always have – believed their way was better.

    But it’s flat wrong. Analog recording is in no way closer to the real recording than digital recording. The vibrations of a needle moving through grooves of varying dimension is as much a transduction of the original sound – from large sonic vibrations down to small voltage fluctuations on down to even smaller vibrations – as transducing those vibrations into sampled binary code. From certain standpoints of physical calculus, digital recording could easily be considered more ‘real.’

    he goes on to use the example of a clock, which gives him away: a clock face isn’t TIME itself, nor ‘closer’ to it (what could that possibly even mean?), it’s still yet another transduced representation of it. All attempts at human representation of natural phenomena are subject to long series of metaphorical and technological conversions. Are people who don’t wear glasses seeing a more ‘real’ world than people who do? Arguing about which one is ‘closer to the real’ is a waste of time and a metaphysical dead end. And it adds aggravation and misinformation to the process of teaching technology!

  14. Rushkoff’s writing style is a problem for analytical mathematical thinkers. His opening salvos sound so far-fetched, so ‘woo’-like, we often give up before getting to the meat of his argument, which is very relevant (and even makes us see what he was trying to express earlier)

    If he was writing just for us, this would be a big problem. Since he’s most likely writing for the other 95%+ of the population, not so much.

    Hmm, now I wonder if it would be possible to write a program that could streamline mass-market writing for engineer readers. Start with the conclusions, maybe, then enumerated examples so we can skip the ones that don’t work, and finally a proof. Brainstorm FAIL methinks.

  15. Sorry Doug. I’m a fan, but I have to chime in with the others in the choir and point out that you are dead wrong about records vs. CDs. You should have done more research.

    The fact is that digital recordings are vastly superior to analog. A CD is capable of holding a much higher quality recording to a vinyl record. Even using low bitrate MP3s with incredible amounts of lossiness not even supposed “golden ear” audiophiles, can tell the difference.

    There are two main reasons I have found that people prefer the sound of vinyl.

    The first is nostalgia/novelty. Because people know it’s vinyl, it puts them in a certain mood. Even if you hide the vinyl from them, they can steal hear the hissing, crackling, or even skipping, and that instills them with additional feelings to the music. If you have the same hissing and cracking as part of the digital recording, people can’t tell. It’s much like how a filmmaker can purposefully make a digital movie look like damaged film and get the same emotion from the audience. It’s also just like how when you put the exact same wine in two different bottles, the one with the higher price label will taste better.

    The other reason people tend to think vinyl sounds better is because of the mastering process. When record companies master vinyl records the audio engineers do things in a certain way. When they master for CDs, they apply all sorts of compression to make the music louder. There are many articles online about the so-called loudness war, if you want to research it. The fact is that if you just took the same master and applied it to both a CD and vinyl, the CD is vastly superior. There are many properly mastered CDs and digital files out there, you just won’t find them from major record labels.

    1. Frst, ‘ll hv t gr wth ll th thr “wnkr drvl” cmmnts. Srry DR.

      The fact is that digital recordings are vastly superior to analog…

      Not trying to start an off-topic argument, but with all due respect Apreche, have you ever actually done an A/B comparison between a digital recording and quality vinyl on a respectable turntable, through a system where the speakers and other components in the chain aren’t the “bottle neck?” If not, I’d like to cordially invite you over for a cup of tea.

      1. Yes, I’ve done one or two double-blind tests, but mostly read about tests other people have done. From what I’ve seen, most of the tests suffer one of three fatal flaws. One is that they aren’t properly conducted in a double-blind fashion. Two is that even if they are blind, people can tell which one is the vinyl because of hissing, popping, skipping, so they aren’t truly bind. Three, the digital audio and the vinyl are not generated from the same master recording. You can’t just go to the store and buy a professionally produced album in both formats.

        I think the best test is to rip a vinyl to MP3 and compare the MP3 to the vinyl on the same sound system in a double-blind fashion. If anything is “lost” you should be able to tell which is which on a statistically significant portion of tests.

        1. Apreche, ripping vinyl to a 16 bit, 44KHz, PCM digital format (ie: CD format or quality) is still not a valid test.

          Vinyl records have, at best, a 65Db signal to noise ratio, while CDs have a 95Db S/N ratio.

          I could demonstrate this with my “Dark Side of the Moon” first edition pressing, circa 1980 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab half speed master pressing, and 30th anniversary CD. The original master tape hiss is clearly audible on even 128Kb mp3 rips of the CD, while no hiss is audibly present with either vinyl record. Despite the hiss, the CD sounds sharper and clearer in every way.

          I’ll never argue with someone who claims vinyl sounds “better” than a CD because that’s a purely subjective judgment, but in any objective test CDs win hands down.

          Speaking as someone who collected over 400 vinyl albums (and still has about 100) between 1966 and 1983, the two biggest enemies of vinyl were wow and flutter (fixable only with $$$turntables) and surface noise (entropy *always* wins). I do not miss the surface noise.

        2. Apologies to DR for getting caught in the mob mentality for a minute.

          Good points, Apreche.

          Now, to Ernunnos comment, here’s an opportunity to take the discussion even further off track in a light-hearted manner.

          If a vinyl album is played in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

          I would say no. As Ernunnos points out, sound is only air pressure, converted into electrical signals by your eardrum / nerve interface. The interpretation of those signals by your brain is “sound.” If there’s no brain around, it’s no more sound than barometric pressure, or air in your car tires, or wave pressure on your legs as you stand in the ocean.

  16. It’s an interesting argument about how we code information about choice in a binary environment, but most of the evidence he’s using to get there is a little painful. When he finally gets around to talking about gathering user information in strict, simply-coded terms, then it gets a lot more relevant and interesting.

  17. I’m not saying one is better. Just that they are made differently. Digital recordings are vastly superior, indeed. Greater fidelity. But they are the result of a very different set of choices, and the translation of a physical event to a numerical symbol.

    We still do not know what is left out.

  18. Some rather poetic non-science wrapped around a number of excellent observations. As always with these things, I wish the distinction between the metaphoric and the literal were made a little clearer.

    I especially like the distinction between experiencing a thing and measuring it, rendered in terms of choice. There are arguments against that, but for me the point was well made.

  19. “The former is as smooth and continuous as real time; the latter is a series of numerical snapshots. The record has as much fidelity as the materials will allow. The CD has as much fidelity as the people programming its creation thought to allow.”

    Sorry, but you are saying one is better. This is the same old subtle use of pejorative and favorable language which I’ve had to unteach for years now. ‘Smooth’, ‘continuous”real’ vs. ‘sampled’ ‘snapshots’. You can’t tell me you aren’t pushing a favorite with this kind of language.

    And to be fair, I, too, am a fan; I use ‘The Persuaders’ to help my media students parse just this sort of language to uncover the intent behind the content.

    And just one problem with this is that time, where audio is concerned, is not continuous (nor, where physics is concerned). It is discretely sampled into sonic vibrations, which high sample rates can exceed, and so we DO know what we’re missing: nothing. There’s no sound between those wave crests. Sample them highly enough, and you get the same non-continuous phenomena that we experience in the ‘real’ world.

  20. I think gregory bateson said this much better 30 years ago. To slightly paraphrase: you can have 3 oranges but you can never have 3 gallons of water. Abstractly: quantity is different from number. I don’t think that bateson actually understood the digital realm much at all, but he grasped the fundamental difference between quantity and numbers very deeply. Analog methods of interacting with the world are generally based on quantity. Digital methods are based on number. Rushkoff’s analogy/explanation is a poor one, in part because its not even a correct description of how analog or digital recording is generally done, but it is trying to get at the same point that Bateson was making about quantity and number, I think.

  21. This chapter is technologically uninformed. The line: “No one has to really know anything about the sound for this to work.” is utterly false. Even an old school wax cylinder recorder had to be designed by an engineer who understood how sound worked.

    Any analog signal path will filter sound to some extent. The aperture size of the recorder will determine what frequencies resonate and which cancel each other out, the needle’s inertia will remove higher audio frequencies, the cylinder can only record a noise that is loud enough to push the wax aside. The system’s physical properties dictate what is and what is not captured on the recording..

    Afterward, the imperfections in the wax will add pops and hiss to the recording that was not in the original performance. As the cylinder is played multiple times, the track will be worn such that no two playbacks can possibly be the same. The cylinder is an imperfect tool for reproducing a sound.

    Perhaps title “Program or Be Programmed” is a call to action, but all of his concerns about the limits of choice can be alleviated by making one’s own tools. The reason that there are 100 browser skins is because somebody made them. If you want something different, you have to make it or commission it yourself.

    If you want more systems to accept generic input like text, (which in and of itself is a granular representation of infinitely subtle idea) then you can’t just whine about it and hope that someone else will make it. You have to make it, and you have to be part of the community that values such things and promotes them.

    Even then, there will always be value in binary options. In a fully realized user generated tag cloud, I still have to choose whether I want to see “funny cat pictures” or not. The government still needs to know if a married couple will be filing taxes jointly or singly. The restaurant needs to know if you had the vegetarian option or the shrimp option in your dish so they can charge you the appropriate amount.

  22. I’m sure Doug welcomes criticism, but please do not resort to name calling. That does not promote civil discussion. I will ban the account of anyone who uses insulting language.

  23. As several previous commentators have pointed out, Doug’s vinyl/CD analogy is fatally flawed. His analogy contrives a false dichotomy between the analog/digital world which appears to run against the premise of his argument to “resist categorization.”

  24. My “whine about it and hope” comment was unnecessary. I’m sorry, Mr. Rushkoff. Obviously you care enough about the subject to have written a book. I haven’t read it and can’t guess what you propose in later chapters. When I can find a copy in a book store, I’ll be interested to see what else you have to say.

    That said, I stand by my critique of the record player/CD analogy, and of the ultimate practicality and inevitability of binary choice, even in the real, non-digital world.

  25. more real than reel to reel? i think the dimensionality of analog v digital media format has little to do with mediation. i prefer hakim bey’s essay on immediatism. burning and snail mail posting digital cd mixes to some of your friends of music you passionately like is more immediate than an analog amplified live but impersonal and mediated, say, madonna concert.

    1. damn – now i think about it, maybe not bey, it might have been baudrillard’s exstasy of communication. please forgive faulty memory, but thoughts on my point welcome :-)

  26. There seems to be a common misconception (also held by Mr Rushkoff) that an analogue recording of a waveform somehow holds “infinite” detail. This is completely false.

    Imagine a photograph taken on a film negative. When you zoom in with a microscope, you don’t just see more and more detail (despite what CSI would have us believe) eventually you don’t see any image anymore, you just see the chemical grains that make up the image. It is exactly the same with analogue audio, as you “zoom in” to the soundwave, depending on the fidelity of the waveform (which is almost certainly less than a high quality digital version on anything a consumer might have access to) you will get to the point where the waveform no longer has any correspondence to the sound in the air when the recording was made and is just random noise.

    The other common misconception is that when a digital waveform is played back, it is a staircase-like form, where the sound pressure “steps” from digital level to level. This is also false. The output of the digital to analogue converter uses various methods to smoothly transition between the values. If you have enough samples, you’ll get every scrap of information up to the limit of what you have decided to record.

    Despite the audiophile claims, no-one can “feel” frequencies above the limit of human hearing so there is no point in recording them. If someone claims they can detect them somehow, I know James Randi would be interested in speaking with them.

    1. What he said was the level of detail was limited by the recording medium, which matches what you say.

      And the only sense in which that is true for digital recording, is that the resultant file must be small enough to fit on the hard disk.

      It’s a good point. It could be made more scientifically, maybe, but it’s valid.

  27. Wow– I’m pretty amazed at intelligent BBers still not being able to navigate this tired “analog vs digital” maze. I’ll break it down for you real simple
    Yes: three are things that are quantifiable, and sound systems can be shown to outperform other sound systems empirically. Each sound system is different, so each should be measured objectively, case by case, with a respect for the physics. I’m not interested in broad generalities.
    The confusion comes in when people confuse physics with music. Music is not physics. Physics is not music. One can be used to make the other, and they have a meaningful relationship. Where they overlap is what is called “technique”. Great confusion always result when technique is confused with what it is used to create.
    You can have a superior sound system and an inferior one, and I may well choose to listen to the “inferior” one because it has better music– music which has more meaning to me as a human, subjectively– being played on it.
    Don’t confuse music with physics. Music *is* quite subjective, and it is *mysterious*.

    On a passing note, I’ll add that I have a friend who recently played on one of Bowie’s albums. He’s partially deaf in one ear. Think about it.

    Rushkoff’s argument is poorly crafted. But to all you ” home grown self appointed physicists” out there should realize that the mystery he spoke about– and which you jumped down his throat about– is real. You can be a great scientist and still respect the mystery of things. Read Einstein, or Bucky. They speak of it all the time.

  28. Poor Mr Rushkoff walked into a minefield with the Analog/Digital debate, and as a result his whole message is being lost.

    Might I point out the irony of the point being lost in the details of the metaphor.

    Which leads one to surmise that Language is not loss-less.

    And thus fulfill the original point that one must try to think indiscretely even when it is impossible.

    1. “Might I point out the irony of the point being lost in the details of the metaphor.”

      I think you have an interesting point. The analog/discrete distinction is fundamentally irrelevant, in the presence of noise. With noise, an analog signal has the same constraints on information transfer as a discrete system (Shannon, blah, blah).

      Once the noise (in his case, ‘details of the metaphor’, spelling, factual inaccuracy, etc) swamps the signal (whatever he was actually trying to say), it becomes almost impossible to extract the signal (unless you have a good understanding of the noise process and signal in order to do reconstruction).

      Ironically, Rushkoff might have been discussing how noise can envelope a signal, yet it’s difficult to decipher as he produces so much noise and so little signal. The medium is the message, indeed.

  29. This analogy of how digital recording works to how people makes choices is pretty strained. Why bother risking losing your audience in a ridiculous (and easy to point out) inconsistency when you don’t have to?

  30. I think what Rushkoff is trying to say could be better explained with a different analogy… bringing up analog vs digital simply brings up sore points for many readers that ends up detracting from the argument.
    A better way to think about it is as so: either between a knife and a saw, or even better, a straight edge knife versus a serrated edge knife. Though they are both knives, they work in a significantly different fashion… no matter how fine the serration on the knife, it will never be straight edged and thus will always cut differently. This may not seen noticeable as more binary value is added, but the difference exists.
    Similarly in calculus, when you are graphing a curve, you have two fundamentally different shapes if you simply draw the curve (rough handed or assisted with a compass) than if you produce a curve by connecting points along the curve individually.
    The point is not whether a cd is better than an lp, but that we are forced to make a choice, and it seems to me that he proposes all choice is bad when you are forced to make it and given options on how to answer it– ask better questions and don’t provide answers to choose from and things will get better.

  31. The average sensory perceptions all of us experience are choices that have been already made for us before we even have a chance to perceive them. When you walk down the street, your mind pays attention to specific things; people’s faces, approaching danger, smells, sounds, and specific thoughts (where am I walking?)

    I get the sense that this article laments the idea that digital information somehow limits our destiny compared to analog information. I think it’s completely untrue, if for the simple fact that if a human could take in the entire firehose of analog information presented to his or her senses, they would descend into madness – schizophrenia.

    Taken in another context, what was written in the above article here reinforces my idea that humankind’s recently developed digital tools are simply extensions to our own ability and desire to filter, sort, and quantize the analog world.

    To leave choices open to the analog world is to make no choice at all.

  32. As a teenager with OCD, it always bugged me that every time I played my favorite vinyl, I was wearing out the record. Each listening contributed to its decay. I obsessed over this.

    Now I am old, and I have my CDs, and I can play them without any degradation of sound quality. But my hearing has deteriorated, so I can’t enjoy the music as I once did.

    Can’t win.

  33. I have an analog & digital studio….There is good sounding digital and bad sounding digital…there is good sounding analog and bad sounding analog.

    analog recording is about choices as much as digital, which mic to use, which preamp…what compressor…how the gain settings affect the sound. What curve to calibrate the tape machine…IEC, NAB?

    You should see what a square wave looks like on a scope when recorded on my tape machine. Its anything but square, it doesn’t represent the real sound. Nothing electronic does! But if the tape machine is running well, and calibrated, there is a pleasing harmonic distortion happening….then there’s the mixing board…the cables…is the patch bay clean…all of this matters.

    Very few records were recorded from straight from musician to record cutting lathe…this can be done digitally as well. There are so many factors in recording that simply saying digital is bad and analog is good is extremely naive. What about depth & width of cuts in vinyl?

    Analog doesn’t just happen… its a series of choices made by an engineer no matter how simple or complicated the signal path.

  34. This reminds me of choices presented at at one time. In your profile, you could check “married”, “divorced”, “single and happy about it” or “single and unhappy about it”.

    There was no way to simply be single, and the married people weren’t forced to tell everyone how happy they were in the situation.

  35. “Something else”? There is no something else. It’s just air pressure, and its rate of change. Different mediums may do better jobs of capturing that accurately, but that’s it. That’s what sound is. Any appeal to “something else” is pure, unmitigated woo.

  36. IIRC, digital media ‘clip’ the waveforms (waveform = the expression/changes in the wave over time, which accounts for variations in tones) as the digital recording process ‘fixes’ the sound into a series of state-by-state digital representations, and thus there is a loss of some info – a mere approximation of the variations of the waves: but that that defect can be compensated for by upping the sampling rate, to capture ever more closely all of the sinu-form tonal variation, and to thus ever more closely approximate the actual waveforms produced by the instrumentation.

    There are people whose ears I respect that say there is a warmth to the tone, a richness, that is not present in digital recordings – unless, they are quick to add, the digital recording is made at a sufficiently high sampling rate. This, listening to acoustic, that is non-digital, instruments and voices.

    I suppose if the music’s instrumentation is digital in origin, though, then digital recordings will always be as good as it can get. As in the case of this stuff, for example:

    Bottom line: if the sampling rate’s fast enough, there is practically no difference.

  37. i didn’t like this article at all either. fact is that while the world is fuzzy, decisions aren’t. all actions stem from decisions. decisions are all about cutting the options into pieces. we don’t make decisions when we don’t have enough information to evaluate the choices available, we might then just take what we are given.

    i think if this is the point that is being made here – that we can choose to refuse, then it hardly required this nonsensical pseudocybernetic theory analogy. computers aren’t the only things that turn input into numbers and programs that evaluate the data to determine the course of action – that’s what a nervous system does too. the snail feels the burning chemical and drying effect of the salt, it has a choice, keep moving towards the painful stimuli, or seek other options. the whole point of the process is about evaluation – making sensations into numbers, making events into a story. that’s what a brain is for, and that’s precisely what computers do. computers are a computation and logic system, so are our brains. the world is a fuzzy place so our brains prefer fuzzy logic, but when it comes to action, you either act, or you don’t, you do this, or you do that. only inside shroedinger’s catbox does anything ambiguous happen. sure, computers capacity for discernment is far more limited than our mostly analogue operating masses of grey circuitry, that’s why we keep on increasing the number of bits in analogue to digital converters, that’s why we keep adding features and altering things and changing the choices that are made available.

    and yeah, the metaphor about recording onto vinyl versus digital sampling is stupid. a mark is a mark, and how subtly or accurately it represents what made the mark is no more a sampling process than the use of analogue to digital converters to store streams of bytes representing samples taken at a given time interval. the analogue machine is more fuzzy, it’s no different to digital because ultimately the diamond cutting that groove is limited in its representational ability by the amount of distance the thing moves over the surface as it records. that’s why 33 1/3 records are and i’m pretty sure measurably and provably less fidelity than a 78. but then the 78 has problems because increased rotation speed also means greater noise from the vibrations of the turntable, both on the record phase and the playback phase.

  38. That’s ridiculous. CDs and LPs are both technological artifacts. The groove on a vinyl (not wax, mind you — that hasn’t been true since, oh about 1905) disc is no more a sound wave than is the encoding of sonic intensities on a CD. Both assume a specific technology to transform them back from their encoded state and both originated in the same sort of live performance (or, more often, hacked up spliced up version thereof). Whenever someone else passes their finger or a butterknife or a needle not attached to anything over the groove, no sound emerges.

    There’s digital encoding and analog encoding but it is still encoding and it is still materials-limited. CDs are not in principle limited by the programmer. They are limited by the diffraction pattern of an infrared beam. Can’t pack pits closer together than that.

    1. “Both assume a specific technology to transform them back from their encoded state and both originated in the same sort of live performance…”

      True: but the digital encoding process uses time-separated samples ( thousands of samples per second, yet still time-separated) as its basic unit, while the analogue encoding process uses a continuous electro-mechanical signal or stream (that is, a temporally contiguous stream, not separated by any time intervals) – or, if you will, uses a single long and complete “sample” – as its basic unit.

      It is this encoding process, from airborne soundwave to recorded signal (signal digital or signal analogue), itself, which is the locus of any difference in perceived quality.

      And any “deficiency” in the sampled digitally encoded signal, versus the continuously encoded analogue signal, may be simply “cured” – by a sufficiently high sampling rate. Just as high-speed film, shooting more frames per second, can capture more information with more accuracy and resolution from fast action, than a camera shooting fewer frames per second.

  39. “Analogue” is better than “digital”, like real is better than fake, and true is better than false.

  40. Canuck is quite right, there is a distinction to be made between quantitative sampling and a pure continuous analog process.

    That said, high sample rate audio, such as 96 – 192 khz on many bluray recordings, pretty much bridges the gap.

    I mean analog recordings become quantitative at a molecular level, too.

    1. I may or may not be using “quantitative” correctly. Most of my knowledge of sampling comes from a Mirage, some time ago.

  41. Did any of the self-procclaimed-sound-engineers made it to the end of the text?
    This all shows great “knowing” of sound-systems, but a lack of concentration and of ability to read abstract semi-long-texts, and comprehend them.

    The point is NOT Digital vs. Analog. The point is NOT Turntable vs CD Player. The point is NOT about sampling rates…

    Quite disappointing.

    1. I suppose it could be worse; we could be on Youtube. But I agree; quite a few people commenting appear to have missed or ignored the point of the article.

      They are free to do that, of course, just as I am free to find that disappointing.

    2. Eh, we’re not spoiled for choice. But others may choose a different answer, and disagree.

      You pays your money, you takes your choice.

      So, which is the right life, the quiet or the night life?

    3. I didn’t even glance at the article. I picked up on a discussion that was going on and threw in my 2c.

      Is that OK with you?

  42. I fail to understand how a sound wave interacting with magnets to move the molecules in a needle is a ‘physical impression’, whereas a sound wave interacting with magnets to move electrons is somehow pure philosophy.

    Perhaps Mr. Rushkoff could prove his argument by sticking a fork in an electrical socket and then reporting back on how non-physical was his impression of the consequences?

  43. I don’t buy it. Feels like forced sophistry to me, which is even worse than naturally occurring, free-ranch sophistry. Why?

    1. Much of what we consume/create in the digital world is text-based words which, while not binary, are made up of discreet chunks; words, letters. Same as in the fleshy analog world. An “E” on the screen has the same cognitive load as an “E” from a typewriter or an “E” scrawled by hand. Yes, yes… let’s argue about the social/cultural weight of one-off typewritten docs or the personality inherent in handwriting that doesn’t shine through in this comment text. But if what you’re trying to convey is, “I’ll be in Washington DC next Tuesday if you want to have coffee,” well… it’s the same in analog as digital. Or, at least, if it’s different, it’s not different because of the analog/digital differences.

    2. Lots of things in the analog world besides text are choice based, or made of discreet chunks, or however you want to talk about stuff that’s not on a smooth, sliding, vinyl scale of curvy information. TV and movies aren’t really movement; they are a series of discreet pics we interpret as motion. So? Well, so if you use fewer frames/second, you get less visual stuff. At some point, though, our brains say, “Hey! This looks like motion!” So we don’t worry about it. Same of the pixels on the TV. Is it different than analog, real live motion? Hella yes. Have we cared for the last 100 years? Not so much.

    3. Parking. Aside from those times when you try to fit your big ass Chevy Leviathan into a space made for human-sized cars, parking is a binary state. Spot’s open, spot’s taken. So what? Same for almost everything you want to buy in the supermarket. It’s either there, or it ain’t. Wife sends you for pinenuts (wtf are pinenuts?), and Kroger either has ’em or not. Binary. Can’t substitute. Go elsewhere. Again I ask: so what?

    4. Everything is choices, and at any given moment (in a fatalistic sense), we had a choice to do two things: what we did, or something else. That’s binary. Except it’s not. It’s after-the-fact mental masturbation. At the time I decided to have an extra cookie at lunch, I could have decided not to, sure. But I could have had two extra. Or five. Or a banana. Or I could have chewed off my lower lip. Same with some of the crap Doug mentions. There’s only a spot for M or F on the form? Married or single? Guess what? Go elsewhere. Choose a different form. Don’t answer the question. Make your own box. Choose both. Abandon that program. It’s the same in the digital world and analog, it’s just that in RL there’s an illusion of choice because you could scrawl a new “neither” box between the two choices. Guess what? When they take your form and put it into their system, they’ll pick M/F based on your haircut.

    More choices aren’t a “side effect” of the digital realm. They’re the side effect of having more choices. Many of which are presented digitally. Cart, horse, etc.

    My voice on my cell phone has been digitally rendered down into ones and zeroes, then sent through the aether, then returned into analog sound waves. What my friends still hear, though, is Andy calling. No choices. Just me bugging them about all the extra firewood I’ve still got in my back yard.

  44. This doesn’t work, not on any level.

    First, “discrete” is the key word, and it’s spelt wrong every time?

    Second, as many commenters have said, the idea that audio is better from analogue than digital is way out of date.

    Third, “digital” is the root state of the universe – that’s the literal meaning of “quantum”. What’s unnatural about that?

    Fourth, choice is not a bad thing, because usually not having a choice means being forced to accept something that could have been better or more suited to you. If it doesn’t matter then you can pick at random and be no worse off.

    OK, the final pay-off seems to be “databases are usually badly designed”, and I have to agree with that. But I wouldn’t have published a book with a chapter saying so.

  45. So many commenters, arguing through one reality tunnel!
    It’s enough to give this spag a mondo headache!

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