Writing in a recent post about telling the time got me thinking about the words analogue and digital.
They’re two words that can be used in many different contexts, and I can safely say that I have a general sense of their meaning. Giving each a precise definition, however, is not always so easy.
I know the difference between, say, an analogue and digitial watch, or between analogue and digital TV, but it’s hard to put into words. It’s hard to say how exactly the difference between analogue and digital TV or radio is different from that between a digital and analogue watch.
When I think of the difference between analogue and digital in general, I think of analogue as being characterised by vagueness, a lack of precision, a sense of contiuity and lack of precise differentiation, with everything blending into everything else, and no clear distinctions between one point and another. Think about tuning stations on a car radio, and how the stations fade in, rather than just appear suddenly.
Digital is basically the opposite, characterised mainly be precision, and clear definitions. Think of how you change directly from one digital channel to another, or how a digital clock changes from one minute to the next in an instant, rather than slowly passing through each minute, but never resting on one (though the second hand on most analogue clocks is still digital in my mind, jumping from second to second, unlike the other two hands).
And checking with the dictionary, that’s basically the distinction. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definitions:
Relating to or using signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position, voltage, etc.
- (of a clock or watch) showing the time by means of hands or a pointer rather than displayed digits.
- Not involving or relating to the use of computer technology, as a contrast to a digital counterpart.
(of signals or data) expressed as series of the digits 0 and 1, typically represented by values of a physical quantity such as voltage or magnetic polarization.
- Relating to, using, or storing data or information in the form of digital signals.
- Involving or relating to the use of computer technology.
(of a clock or watch) showing the time by means of displayed digits rather than hands or a pointer.
Relating to a finger or fingers.
So, basically what I said then. It’s interesting to note that analogue has in many cases now come to effectively mean not digital, and often now simply means outdated or old-fashioned, just as digital is often used as a shorthand for modern information technology.
The word analogue comes from the Greek analogos (proportionate), and has been used in English since the early 19th century, originally to refer to a word or structure equivalent or identical to another.
Digital has a slightly more interesting history. As you can see from the dictionary entry above, it’s no coincidence that our fingers and toes are referred to as digits. The original meaning of digital was indeed related to a finger or fingers. Toes too, I suppose, but how often do you need an adjective to refer to your toes? We also refer to the numbers below ten as digits because we originally counted them on our fingers. This is why we have a Base-10 system of maths (i.e. our numbers are organised in blocks of ten), and the metric system is almost the standard international system.
The modern meaning of digital can be simply attributed to the fact that it’s based on the two digits 0 and 1, but I also like to think that it also reminds us of how we jump instantly from one number to another when counting on our fingers, echoing the precise, discrete nature of digital information. Because all of our advanced technology wouldn’t exist if no-one had ever figured out they could use their digits to count.