Are you Digital or Analog?

A half-baked personality theory by Stephen Herron

Digital doesn’t mean electronic, though that’s how modern electronics work. Computers use pulses of electrical power to store information in a binary form – either power is off or it’s on. That translates into a 0 or a 1, which is the basis of electronic information transfer. If you’re heavily into computer games, you may recognize analog as describing a type of game controller, or ‘analog stick’. This kind of joystick allows for fine control – gently moving the stick to the right gives a very different result than pushing it hard all the way over. The sweeping generalization of my theory contends that there are two kinds of people: Digital or Analog. First, a couple of examples to set up my interpretation of what Digital and Analog mean.

The Watch Example
A digital watch displays an exact time. For instance, it might show 3:52:04, with the hour, the minute and the second displayed. One-sixtieth of a minute later, the second changes to 05. Then 06. And then 07. Eventually it resets to 00, but the 52 will change to 53.

An analog watch has an hour hand and a minute hand and sometimes a second hand (though they are really arms, or fingers, but that’s an entirely different, and much weirder personal theory for another day). You know the drill – the second hand moves ‘clock-wise’ around the dial, marking out the passing of time. The minute-hand moves more slowly, and the hour-hand even slower still. At 3:52:04, the hour hand is nearly pointing at 4, the minute hand is closer to 52 than it is to 53, but is very slowly moving that way. To be truly analog, the second hand must be continuously sweeping around, not clicking between each number with a pause and a jump.

So: you’re late for a meeting. You think you’re about ten minutes away. You look at your watch. If it’s digital, you see the precise time. You make a calculation, adding ten minutes onto the number you see. Will that make you late? How late? You subtract the time you were meant to be there from your ‘late estimate’

If you’re wearing an analog watch, you don’t think in the same way. You know what ten minutes looks like. You’ll see that you’ll be late by about five minutes. You can see where that puts you on the clock dial, how long the meeting will last, how long you’ll have left.

With the analog watch, there’s more information, but it’s less precise. With the digital watch the information is more accurate, but requires a bit more thought, and it gives you less context.
The Plane Example
Imagine you’re sitting in the cockpit of a plane. There are dials and switches galore.

Two displays are of great interest. One tells you how fast you are going, the other tells you what height you’re at.

The one indicating speed tells you two things. Your speed in knots is indicated as a number, yet there is also an arm, much like on a car speedometer, which moves up and down slowly as the plane adjusts speed.

The altimeter also has a reading with numbers (digital) but has two arms, and when they start moving, you better pay attention, because as they move faster and faster, spinning down, you realize you are falling. The pilot pulls the plane back up, and those arms start slowing down, until they stop, and start turning the other way slowly. In the middle of this crisis, which display tells you more? The rapidly changing digital display with numbers flicking by too fast to read, or those two arms which were turning alarmingly fast?

The digital display tells you the precise information you’re after. The hour, the minute and the second, frozen in time. Your altitude, right now. Your speed, right now.

An analog display tells you roughly what time it is. It tells you, more-or-less, what altitude you’re at, how fast you’re falling, and it hints very strongly at the relationship between your rate of decent and the ground.

So, what’s the real difference between Analog and Digital?
The tradeoff between analog and digital is trading precision for context. Digital tells you where you are. Analog tells you where you’ve been and where you’re going.

An analog signal, such as an AM station on the radio, is continuous and relies upon changes in frequency and amplitude to work. Music depends on the same things, but you might call them pitch and loudness. A digital signal is either on, or off.

However, enough digital information can seem analog. A CD or MP3 file is a collection of digital information, 0’s and 1’s. But somehow, with enough of them being processed quickly enough, music is produced, which is inherently an analog creation.

Enough examples – how does this work with people?
People rarely fall into exact categories. For many aspects of their personality, they will be analog. Only for certain things will they switch into a digital mode. (Interestingly, this theory is both analog AND digital, precisely because it tries to classify people into one or the other while realizing that it’s just a model, and reality is much more complex!)

Digital people are exact, precise. They find it difficult to see the bigger picture, or the greater context of the situation. Digital people, when faced with complex arguments, will tend to pick a side and stick with it. Far from being reactionary, they can and will consider both sides before making their decision, and may change later given more information.

Analog people are less precise, but tend to take account of situations and context. They may ask for the background of a particular situation, and whether or not something similar has happened before. Getting a decision from an analog person is difficult, but it’s easy to get a feeling for where they stand, though four different Analogs will have 8 different positions that they can take.

Example One
You’re asked to produce a report for your boss. You compile the information she asked for, put it into a chart, and hand it over. If your report contains just a spreadsheet of data, then you’re probably digital. If you’ve included some charts, then you’re probably a mix. If it’s got your personal theories and insights into the data, then you’re probably analog.

Example Two
You are meeting someone. You set the time at noon. If you turn up at five minutes to noon, and wait until about five minutes past, you’re analog. If you arrive at precisely noon, and don’t see them waiting, and then leave, you’re digital.

Example Three
You need to buy bread. You drive out to the store, and pick some up. If you pick up some other groceries while you’re there, you’re analog. If you buy just the bread, and come home, you’re digital.

Example Four
You are dating someone for a year. You ask them to marry you. They say no. If you’re digital, you break it off with them. If you’re analog, you hang around and maybe ask again in another six months.

In Summary
Analog people are more flexible, but less firm. Digital people are firm, but less flexible.

There is a place for both kinds of people. And a need for both. In truth, we have both aspects in our personalities, but I know that, having read this article, you are already thinking about your friends & family and your co-workers, and figuring out who is digital and who is analog.

This concept won’t win a Nobel prize, but it’s a starting point for discussion.

Are you analog? Are you digital? Share your thoughts and comments, and let us know if you can think of other examples.

Disclaimer: This is just a personal theory of mine. Although I have previously studied psychology at an undergraduate level, I don’t remember enough of it to make any claims of having any genuine insights here!

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