Digital in an Analog World (March 21st, 2014)

The digital paradigm is a key element of the technology and general thinking that drives our civilization today.  Information sharing in the electronic domain is for the most part achieved by breaking the information down into discrete, i.e, digital, levels for transmission and processing (except for a few remaining exceptions).  What we may not realize is that we also tend to use the digital paradigm almost everywhere else in our lives, outside of the technology domain, and this often times is the trigger to many of the issues we have in the world.  We tend to make absolute determinations about situations when in fact there are” levels” or grades of explanations and understandings about the realities, and a resulting ambiguity with a lot of what happens in the world.  By using the term “levels” I have already assumed a digital mode of thought, by postulating that there are some thresholds involved in the thinking process, when in fact the range of ideas and opinions that are available is a continuously variable analog process.

There are examples everywhere.  Consider definitions  used in the political world. We tend to use categorizations such as democratic, dictatorship, capitalist, socialist, etc.,  when in fact there is almost always more variation and ambiguity in the definition of political systems of particular countries being talked about, and mixed approaches to governing and addressing national issues.  But given a choice, the world will tend to categorize and compartmentalize.  When you do not want to think, names can be substituted and can perhaps be used as a basis for conflict.  When you think about it, having nations with boundaries is a completely artificial digital concept in itself.

Social arguments also tend to follow the digital paradigm.  In many cases is no compromise on topics ranging from religion to human rights (including women’s rights).  We are the owners of the one truth, we set our thresholds at one extreme, we cannot (or we refuse to) empathize with the other side, we want to set the rules, there is no room for compromise, and we are divided because of this.  It could be argued that some categorization is needed to provide a structure in society, without which there would be chaos. The challenge is to do this in a way that works fairly for everybody involved so that consideration of variety, compromise, and ambiguity are part of the process.  Why is it that the only outcomes of a court of law are that of guilty and not guilty.  Surely there are situations which are not that clear cut.  But we hate ambiguity.

Take an practical example from everyday city life.  We have traffic lights that almost eliminate the need for drivers of automobiles to think when arriving at a traffic intersection. Then we have speed limits (and other rules of the road) that are meant for safety (as if you are completely safe below a particular speed, and completely unsafe above it).  Perhaps we need some of these absolute rules because we cannot be trusted to deal properly with situations that are ambiguous, where we need to make judgment calls.  But rules still do not eliminate danger.  We are still capable of killing ourselves and others on the road.  And rules can also applied in a manner that leads to inefficiencies, such as the need to sit at traffic intersections waiting for the light to change for long periods of time when there is no cross traffic at all. Do we set more levels and boundary conditions and rules for decision making, or should we be smarter about our interactions at a traffic intersection?  Or perhaps we create autonomous vehicles and try to program the vehicles to respond to any possible scenario that can be thought of.  Is this even possible?

Categorization does also provide us with a tool that can be used to simplify the teaching process.  For example, look up information about the height of the atmosphere.  You will find that it is defined as being layered, with names for the different layers. In fact the nature of the atmosphere continuously changes with height and there are no clear layers, nor is there a clear boundary between the atmosphere and outer space.  Creating layers makes it simpler to be organized and to talk a common language to get an idea across, but it is essentially a concept in our minds.  To truly understand something, perhaps you have to embrace  ambiguity.  Consider the geographical construct of a shoreline.  Assumptions are made about clear lines delineating the land from the water so that we can try to make measurements, when in fact the delineation could be extremely complex and could be described beautifully using the concept of fractals  Here are some great examples (including that of the shoreline). (I actually think that the concept of fractals is something that is intuitive and can be taught to kids.)

When the digital mode of thinking it taken to its extreme, any form of dissent, disagreement, and attempts to argue with the rules, is not allowed.   (You will also be failed in your exams. 🙂 ) Are there folks who will argue that it is a good thing?

Things can be ambiguous in physics.  The uncertainty principle asserts that one cannot accurately know the location and momentum of a particle at the same time.  We also learn in physics that light has properties of both particles and waveforms, and there are experiments to illustrate both behaviors.   But we most probably started out learning only one of the behaviors in a school environment because it was probably more intuitive and easy to explain that behavior.  It is more difficult to comprehend things when you start talking about the subtleties.

In the world of digital communications, we find that communications becomes more efficient if are able to define more levels (of modulation), but we also learn that creating these additional levels creates more uncertainty and requires much more powerful processing (error correction) to resolve the uncertainty, until at some point we can approach Shannons capacity limit for the maximum possible information transmission rate in a noisy channel.  Perhaps, there is a similar dynamic in play in our minds on other matters, where creating more levels of consideration may be considered equivalent to embracing more uncertainty, but the ability to deal with this uncertainty requires more powerful processing in our heads. Dealing with ambiguity can lead to better solutions but it is harder to do.

You might say that there are moments in time when change is instantaneous.  Death is instantaneous. A nuclear explosion happens instantly.  How about the Big Bang?  From a human experience today, is it always the case that the experience of real life ends at the moment of death.  What if you are incapacitated and incapable of doing or feeling anything while your heart is still beating?  Some people might feel that this is as good as being dead.  Who is to decide? Consider also that time frames tend to be relative, or that the concept of time is itself relative.  There is actually a process related to a phenomenon such as the Big Bang, or even  a nuclear reaction, and processes do take some time, even if that time might seem to be extremely short. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/science/space/detection-of-waves-in-space-buttresses-landmark-theory-of-big-bang.html)

Looking at the concept of time frames from a different angle, consider the fact that if one were to measure the lifetime of individual humans relative to the lifetime of the universe, our existence is of the order of the order of 1 out of about 100000000 units of time (if we live that long)!  Homo sapiens have only existed for much less than less than 1/10000th the lifetime of the universe, and “intelligent life” for much less than that. Our individual existences, and even the existence of humanity are but an instant if the observation is being made from a particular perspective.  But we think we know that our real lives are not instantaneous.  It all depends on your perspective.

We can use absolutes to get concepts across, to try to organize the workings of our human society, and perhaps even to find ways to move humanity forward (using whatever definition of humanity that works for us), but I think we are truly enlightened only if we are able to get even beyond these “absolutes” and wrap our heads around the reality of the ambiguity of almost everything, and incorporate this concept into the principles that we all individually live by.  Life is analog!

The article below is somewhat related.  The argument is being made that nothing is truly alive.  But I think the actual issue here is that we are trying to fit a digital concept of life and death into a world that is really analog.  It is a hard argument to make that life and death are not real for humans.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/opinion/why-nothing-is-truly-alive.html?ref=opinion
(Even if you do not read the article, click through to this website to see something unique.)

Published by

K. Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am exploring new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

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