Think Digitally

By Steve Macatee

Welcome to a recurring column on many things digital.

Years ago, Apple Computer ran an ad campaign with photos of famous people with the slogan “Think Different.” This column’s title is an unfortunate reality of living in today’s digital world. I used to wish we would never have to think digitally or differently. Why can’t digital products always be simple, black or white devices, or at least allow us humans to think about them like familiar analog products?

This is like asking why the latest digital audio widget can’t precisely emulate an Edison cylinder, crystal radio set, vacuum tube or vinyl record. Digital products are so fundamentally different, you can’t think about them like previous products. Just like you think about adult life differently than when you were a kid, you must learn how to think digitally. One needs a mental foundation to wrap your head around digital products’ inner workings to help you achieve your goals when using them. Thinking digitally can sometimes ease the pain, but we all know it ain’t always easy.

The inner workings of digital products are too often unfamiliar, obscure and unfortunately not explained. Simple but powerful microprocessors costing pennies allow the packing hundreds of features into small, low-cost devices. However, products that used to be intuitively obvious to casual observers of all ages and backgrounds – such as light switches – now require you to think digitally. Motion sensing light switches offer many advantages, you literally shouldn’t have to think about them. They turn themselves on when motion is detected. When no motion is sensed, they turn off after awhile, saving energy. Very cool.

We installed these at the office and learned their other “feature” advantages. With the new motion sensing lights, bathroom visits are kept to only a few minutes since motion behind stalls is not sensed. Think analog by waving under the stall or throwing the Farmer’s Almanac over the wall. Think digitally by adjusting the time-to-off potentiometer behind the faceplate. When co-workers buy you battery-operated feng shui cat figures with arms that ward off bad life-energy by waving 24 hours a day, the sensor helps the well-lit energy disperse. Think digitally by placing the arm within a single motion-sensing zone. Simple light switches of yore lack these special undocumented features. Keep your sanity and think digitally about creative uses for such useful digital features. There are probably dozens more free ones you’ve yet to discover.

I could go on with door locks in hotels and modern car keys, but the point is, the way you think about these digital products is different than their analog counterparts. You are forced to at least understand or learn some of their basic operational quirks to make them useful. Digital audio is no different. Nor is computer networking or thousands of other familiar things. Having a rudimentary way to think about how these things work goes a long way toward using, designing, troubleshooting and talking about audio effectively in today’s digital world. With shared synergy, we can help each other wrap our heads around all this digital stuff. This will be the goal of future entries in this Think Digitally space. sm