Distance Learning #5 – On Analog and Digital communication theory

Posted on Dec 3, 2009

This article has been a long time in the making, and will, hopefully, introduce me to further thought about Instructional Design methods, and evaluation of learning material. I hope to use this theory to formulate a diagnostic tool to measure strengths and weaknesses in Distance Learning instruction. I will make an expository here of the theory, and then write more thoughts about how it could be used in ID in future posts.

In a nutshell, analogic communication describes relationships, though its ability to define context and meaning is limited. Digital communication denotes pure symbolic signification and boundaries, but is weak in describing the relationship to that which it denotes. The two forms work together to form “understanding”. For example, an analog watch has hands that move “analogously” to the movement of time, though one would need to know the definition (or boundary) of the relationship to comprehend its function as a watch. Likewise, a digital watch shows abstract symbols whose shapes bear no resemblance or behavior to that which it symbolizes. It is only until the symbols are aligned in relationship to the numerical scale that the progression of numbers can be comprehended as a representation of the measurement of time.

I am exploring this to determine if there a way to form a diagnostic checklist of the components of non face-to-face learning so that attention can be paid by Instructional Designers to mitigate “gaps” in ambiguity or ill-formed boundaries in the communication context.

The basis for this commentary is inspired from the following article: Analog and Digital Communication – On Negation, Signification and Meaning. System and Structure – Essays in Communication and Exchange, Anthony Wilden, Tavistock Publications, 1972. I borrowed some things from an adjacent article from the same book: Epistomology and Ecology – the difference that makes a difference. This article was first presented to me back in 1983 by my father, Stephen G. Covello, jr, who used it as a basis for his research into developing musical pedagogy for early learning piano students.

Here is a PDF of the article: 

Download “AnalogAndDigital.pdf” AnalogAndDigital.pdf – Downloaded 447 times – 8 MB

It is constructed partly from a Google Books copy and a scan of an original text.

Here is a synopsis:

Wilden begins:

All natural systems of communication employ both analog and digital communication at some level in the system. It is useful to make a methodological distinction between the two modes of information transmission. The distinction is modeled on the way information is transmitted and used in certain manmade primitive ‘organisms’: cybernetic devices, control mechanisms, computers. It is equally applicable to or derivable from the way information is transmitted within human organisms, or in an ecosystem, or from the way it is transmitted between human organisms.

An analog device, or computer, “computes” by means of an analog (analogy) between real, continuous quantities and some other variable. Examples: ruler, volume knob, gas pedal. Each computer expresses a relationship between itself and that which it measures. In language, a close example would be the use onomatopoetic devices to simulate what is pronounced and that which is being referred to, such as “splash”.

A digital device employs discrete values, or on/off values, based on abstract, artificial, and arbitrary codes, and its forms bear no resemblance, or analogy, to that which it represents. Examples: a digital watch, an alphabet.

Analog relationships are connotative, imbued with meaning, semantics and context, and do not translate unambiguously into digital form. Examples: love, poetry.

What analog communication gains in semantics, it loses in syntax, such as expressing the meaning of a clenched fist (anger, success, fear?). Analog differences involve differences in magnitude, frequency, pattern, organization, etc. For example: a bee performs a dance to communicate to other bees a message about nectar (an analog relationship). It cannot dance about where nectar is not (as far we know), nor where it will be. The dance can only express the relationship between the bee, the hive and its needs through vibrations, frequency, etc. It is a command, of sorts, to the other bees to place themselves in the same relationship.

Digital machines are unambiguous, and they are limited to defining boundaries. Examples: stating ‘not’, on/off, sufficient/insufficient. Digital information is denotative. Differences are measured in terms of codes of distinction and opposition. Thus, the sounds of speech are analog, but the alphabet is digital.

Digitalization is a tool used to define an overall relation within a system, such as an indicator of some sort (a light being on or off) signifying an acceptable/unacceptable state. Example: an animal evokes a call signifying the presence of food. The call signifies a boundary between ‘the presence or absence of food’, though there is nothing analogously ‘food-like’ in the call itself.

Analog and digital functions appear together in all communication systems. In human communication, translation from analog form to digital form involves a gain of organization, but a loss in meaning.  The more highly organized a system is, the more distinct information is from the energy that bears it, and the less dependent the information is upon the proximity of it to that which it describes. To create information about other information requires an increase in digitalization, such as using language to comment on language. Therefore, digital communication is a meta-communication about an analog relationship.

Digitalization often occurs at play, where the boundaries of “pretend” and “real” are established. The brain attempts to organize information within boundaries, and therefore attempts to draw a boundary to form a perceptual field, which includes the subject him/herself. Quote:

“In order for a system to be open to an environment … the system must be capable of punctuating itself as distinct from that environment so as to select messages within it.”

This distinction is dependent upon the goals of the senders and receivers.

Boundaries in network communication are highly permeable, are described in terms of difference (analog), and are subject to conceptual evolution keyed closely to how thresholds between boundaries are explained. Switching from analog communication to digital communication is necessary to cross boundaries. Boundaries in networks ask us to distinguish between binary relation, binary distinction and binary opposition.

The ecology of network communication requires adaptation and counter-adaptation in both analog and digital terms in order to sustain itself. Thus, a form of communication “dies” when it either can no longer represent relationships by some adaptation of its users, or when its boundaries can no longer be defined, such as when the code used to define it is deprecated or fallen out of usage.

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