The Internet's Digital Advantage

One day in the future (and we are not foolhardy enough to predict an exact date), for economic reasons alone in the military environment it may be necessary to break away from existing analog signal communication network concepts in favor of all-digital networks.

Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications, Volume XI, 1964.

The digital media of computer networks, by virtue of their design and the enabling technology upon which they ride, are fundamentally different from the now dominant mass media of television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Digital communications media are inherently capable of being more interactive, more participatory, more egalitarian, more decentralized, and less hierarchical. As such, the types of social relations and communities which can be built on these media share these characteristics.

Mitchell Kapor, Electronic Frontier Foundation Information, 1993.

Digital communications have the D4 advantage: “Digital data doesn’t degrade”.

Analog systems and digital systems are like mirror images of each other. Analog systems are usually controlled by physical mechanisms that can be in an infinite number of continuous positions. A typical example would be the bicycle, which provides force to the wheels through the gear system depending on the continuously varying force of your feet on the pedals. An example from the 20’th century would be one of those old record players that recorded music with the depth and pattern of a tiny groove cut into a vinyl disk by a diamond needle.

In contrast to approximate, analog systems, the Internet is a digital medium based on data made up of discrete 1’s and 0’s. A bit of computer data is not infinitely adjustable, and only has one of two unambiguous states — it is either a 1, or a 0. This limitation has a very important compensating advantage: there is no “drift” that can introduce error.

For example, for many years radio stations that broadcast on the AM frequency had a lot of static because their signal was based on an analog measurement of radio waves that were distorted in transmission. However, FM radio stations used a different method based on the phase of the radio wave frequency, which was a digital measurement with only one of a small number of different values, and therefore provided static free sound that wasn’t distorted in transmission. On the other hand, once you got far enough away, and the FM receiver started having trouble decoding the weakening signal, then the station would often just drop out altogether.

The Internet, like all computer systems, is based on digital data, so that information never changes or becomes distorted over time or in transmission between sites. This is the key feature that makes it possible to construct the very complex software systems that run the Internet, so that a website doesn’t age and become fuzzy or garbled over time, and the characters in an email don’t get transposed or mixed up when they are sent over long distances.

One of the most important strengths of the Internet is that it’s based on one of the simplest concepts — digital 1’s and 0’s.