Tag Archives: atoms to bits

I’m through the Digital looking-glass

I think I’ve ‘got’ for the first time what the “DIGITAL” thing is.

I’ve been searching to find the meaning of the phrase “digital transformation”, which I assumed encompassed a change from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’. I finally understood yesterday – that’s not what it’s really about.

The transformation happened slowly to me, over most of my life. My first programming was planned on paper then character boxes were filled-in with a graphite pencil on cards. They were shipped by road to a punch machine that punched the binary codes onto the cards which were then were fed into a computer by operators I never saw. A week later I got some printout back, usually telling me what had gone wrong.

Soon after arriving at university, I had access to GEORGE 3’s Multiple On-line Programming system: a terminal. I used a line editor to create a card-image file which was stored on disk then later submitted to the batch queue. Undergraduates were only allocated space to store one program at a time. There wasn’t room to keep things permanently on-line because of the price of disk space. Some of the research students still walked around with boxes of cards. It was easy to copy a card-stack on one of the card punches and keep it in a safe place. They could probably store more code that way.

I’ve been mostly digital since the 1970s but I saw my digital world as a binary virtualisation of a physical medium. I moved very slowly from dependence on physical to online-only artifacts which had always been representations of digital data.

I realised yesterday that most people have only recently moved their business objects: files, documents, photographs, drawings, 3D-models and social network connection information into the digital realm – from atoms to bits. That frees those objects from their bindings at a single, fixed physical location, leaving them to roam in more than the 3 dimensions of our visualisable reality. This paradigm shift has suddenly hit many without warning, like a revolution, whereas I experienced it as a series of small increments. I’ve been greatly underestimating how disorienting it has been for other industries to reluctantly release their tight grip on physical objects and how worrying it may be for those still facing the cultural adjustment.

I remembered the other day that I used to jump off a shed roof at 5 years old. I could see the spot where I would land. I can’t imagine throwing myself out of a plane into free-fall and that’s why there are ‘digital coaches’. My empathy has been retrieved from an old backup tape. I’m sorry if my lack of understanding ever inconvenienced anyone.

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