Commentary: Do We Have To Have A Digital Revolution?

The latest technology is not always the best

Say it ain't so! O.K., so maybe most people weren't surprised when Eastman Kodak Co. (EK ) recently decided to exit the film-camera business in the U.S. and Europe. With industrywide sales of digital cameras certain to pass those of traditional cameras this year, the film pioneer had little choice. Yet I couldn't help feeling sad -- not so much for Kodak as for the rest of us. In the world's headlong rush to embrace everything digital, we're losing a lot to the bells and whistles of digital technology.

Now, I'm certainly no Luddite. I write about digital technology for a living, and the thought of giving up my laptop computer and going back to a typewriter gives me the shakes. But behind the sleek facade of the digital age there lurks a dirty little secret. Creaky old "analog" technologies such as film, vinyl phonograph records, and, yes, even mechanical clocks with revolving hands boast a raft of advantages -- a richness, longevity, and human scale -- that most of their digital counterparts are not yet able to match.

SOUNDS WORSE. Many audiophiles, for instance, swear that well-produced, well-maintained vinyl records produce warmer, more pleasing music than compact disks. "The old vinyl sounds better," insists Al Farleigh, owner of Big Al's Record Barn in the Silicon Valley city of Santa Clara, Calif. And digital degradation is accelerating. Nobody will ever ask: "Is it real or is it MP3?" The compression technology for which MP3 is named produces even worse sound than CDs. That weakness is most apparent on classical music, but my old Jamaican-made reggae records -- even disregarding the skips and pops -- also boast noticeably louder bass than the same music on MP3s or CDs. (Just ask my neighbors.)

Even analog clocks still outperform their silicon counterparts. The old battery-operated timepiece that hangs on my kitchen wall keeps far more accurate time than the digital versions installed inside my personal computer, which inexplicably seem to depend on poorly designed clock circuits. Plus, there's just something about hands sweeping slowly around the clock face that captures the nature of time better than a numerical readout.

The decline of film, though, troubles me the most. I've held off buying a digital camera because the affordable models, at any rate, still can't guarantee they'll catch that special twinkle in my daughter's eyes. Even $1,500-plus, 10-megapixel cameras barely match the resolution that film is able to provide. Eventually, the relentless march of chip technology may produce cheaper digital cameras that rival the quality of actual film. But for now, I just don't want to leave pixelated photographs to my grandchildren.

There's a more insidious problem yet with digital photography: the lack of believability it has created in a medium that was once prized for its accuracy -- and authenticity. In fact, the ability to make changes in the original image, such as moving the moon to a more pleasing location or removing an ex-spouse from a photo, is marketed as a prime reason to go digital.

With digital prints, notes the renowned landscape photographer Christopher Burkett, "nothing about the image remains sacred, and the viewer is left wondering how much of it is real." Granted, even Ansel Adams was renowned for his darkroom fiddling with prints. But I doubt that his art would move viewers as much as it does if they suspected it wasn't a faithful reproduction of what he saw.

NO-BRAINER. Not the least, film and other analog technologies are easier for people to use. Try as they might, the makers of electronic books have failed to dislodge the traditional book printed on paper -- because it's dead obvious how to use it, you can take it anywhere, and it will never need a new battery. Even more important, analog stuff such as books and traditional photos endure -- in some cases for centuries. Digital formats are changing faster and faster, making orphans of erstwhile standards such as floppy disks.

In the course of time, advances in chip and storage technology will overcome many of these limitations. Indeed, I confess that, for quick snapshots, I'm eyeing one of those cute new digital cameras -- the ones so small they fit in a shirt pocket. That way, I'll still have a free hand to tote my trusty old film camera.

By Robert D. Hof

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