A Guide to Digitization

When digitizing an item, I think of the five senses (there are more, but whatever, let’s stick with these five): sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. With digitization, it’s pretty hard to capture taste and smell, so we can safely set those two aside.

Sight is our most valuable sense, and so one of the obvious forms of digitization is through photos of objects. However, the photo–while it presents sight well–is very one-dimensional. It is hard to determine depth, size, and texture from a photo, especially if there are no measurements around the object. Sound is completely out of the picture (heh heh). So I would reserve photos for text documents or for objects that are best viewed from one angle, like signs or labeled containers.

Another one-dimensional mode of digitization is the audio recording. While I enjoy podcasts and audiobooks as much as the next person, this means is also limited–just to sound. It is possible to capture more through creative use of sound–a car driving by, city noises, the clink of glasses–but it suffers from the same problem the photo does.

Therefore, my prescription is video.  It is the best we can do: marry the audio and the visual. With the two together, it is easy to make up for the deficits of both. Actually, the video adds more than just sight and sound: it adds movement. In a photo, you can see a car, but it’s stationary. You can only see one side; it may be a side that’s very useful to see, but it’s impossible to see another side in that one photo. In an audio recording, you can hear the squelch of the tires and even hear that white noise of a car driving down a road, but that’s it. In a video, although it’s impossible to touch the car or feel the motion of driving in one, you can see how fast it drives by. The combination of sight, sound, and movement almost lets you imagine that you can feel: feel the movement of driving when you see one whiz by, feel the texture of the seats when you hear the sound and see someone else touching it. Video doesn’t just combine: it adds.

Digitization is great. Digitization allows you to tour the Louvre without ever leaving the United States, or to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver a speech that was given before you were born. However, digitization, like other forms of disseminating information, is reliant on point of view. Does the uploader have an agenda? Has this digital photo of this painting been altered in any way? Even if you have full trust in the source of the digitization, there are still limitations. You are still restricted to how the the photographer/recorder wants to present the object. Maybe you would flip that bowl over and realize it’s actually a hat, but the person who photographed it just left it upside-down. There can even be defects on the technical end–the example that immediately comes to mind is Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” quote. Armstrong has stated that he actually said, “One small step for a man.” If he weren’t there to correct the recording, we all believe what we hear–in fact, we still quote it as “one small step for man.” There will always be limitations. We could go over the surprisingly intense debate over whether there is anything inherently wrong with a copy of the Mona Lisa versus the actual Mona Lisa, but it must be acknowledged that most people feel something is different in their gut. Maybe, in some ways, we’ll never be satisfied with digitization.

Or maybe we’re all living in a simulation, as Elon Musk believes. Who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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