You’ve heard the terms before, as they’re repeated almost endlessly – “digital” and “digitalization”. And hey, why not? The digital revolution is an interesting, important step for mankind. Still, in the invocation of this, we sometimes forget what makes all this important, and how the meaning of these words at least in part emerges out of their relationship with that strange little word that acts as their balancing other – the analog.
Analog has today become almost a word of derision, one at times used to refer to those who “don’t get it”. Here, digital is presented as the new new better thing (sic), and no-one wants to be referred to as being “you know, analog in a digital world”. Such talk is dangerous, however, as it risks obscuring the reason to why digital, yes, digital, is important.
Is Analog More Than Old School?
To put it simply and clumsily, an analog signal is a continuous one which can convey any information, and which in theory contains information as a whole, whereas a digital signal represents information by way of discrete functions. The latter can only take one of a finite number of values, making the digital signal a handy approximation, and most flexible in use. For instance, the human voice is a most analog signal, but can be quite exactly rendered in a digital format, which can be endlessly copied and used in a plethora of ways. To put it differently, the analog is the world in all its complexity, and the digital is a way to make this more usable, even in ways that would be impossible in the analog world.
"We need digitalization that moves beyond data…"
This does not, however, mean that the analog is pointless, or “old school” or something to rid oneself of. Quite the contrary. The world is analog, and digitalization is at its best a celebration of just this analog fact.
Let us for instance consider that most remarkable of beasts, the customer. No matter how big our data, the customer is always and persistently analog. We can of course consider them as bits, piecemeal, through data. We can reduce them to clicks, receipts, median values. This can be quite an efficient way to go about it, and in a way we’ve been doing this for a long time – far longer than computers have existed. This said, the most important thing to remember is that this digitalization does not make the customer digital. On the contrary, the customer is still a complex analog signal, far greater than the sum of his or her data-parts. She needs, no, requires individual attention. He is mercurial and flighty. She doesn’t always behave rationally, and he has diverse, even contradictory wants and desires.
"The world is analog, and digitalization is at its best a celebration of just this analog fact."
What digitalization can do, then, is that it can aid and abet in this. Developing technologies can make contacting a someone more personal, create services that can live up to the ephemeral and shifting moods of the user, develop products that grow and adapt with the contradictory desires of the customer. None of this is a move away from the analog. On the contrary, they represent shifts and moves towards the very same.
Digitalization Beyond Data
The first steps of the digital revolution were very badly rendered indeed. The graphics were blocky, the sound bleeps. These could however be arranged in ways that reminded us of music and art, and with every development in technology, we were transported a little closer to representations that reminded us of the multifaceted nature of reality. Today, digital renditions can be amazingly accurate copies of the analog signals of reality, so exact that we sometimes forget to notice or even realize the differences.
Something analogous (heh) is now happening in digital business. Although we’ve become used to clumsy, blocky uses herein — the spamming, the bots, the app that force their users to jump through 8-bit hoops — the important thing to notice is still the slow move towards the analog customer. We are not there yet, but we are moving towards technologies that enable consideration, empathy, social feelings. We need digitalization that moves beyond data, towards politeness, subtlety, seeing individuals as individuals. We need a digital business that understands and celebrates the analog, the part of your customers and your world that cannot be reduced to bits.
The analog and the digital aren’t opposites. Rather, they are coupled, eternally. The world, the people in it, as well as their behavior, are all analog signals, waveforms, and always will be. Digitalization can either try, in vain, to deny this, or accept the role as supporting that which it is not. The companies that try to fight this will fail. Those that instead see the digital as a path to respect and celebrate the analog signals – i.e. those complex, subtle, diverse waves all around us – will conquer the world.