There are no analog cigarettes (or digital ones)

I have been a bit busy and have missed some good blog topics.  Maybe I will get back to those after I finish on major project, but I will ease myself back with a quick post about a pet peeve:  The word “analog” (used in the context of technology) does not mean “non-computerized” or simply “old technology”.

[Of course, that’s “analogue” to my readers in the UK and you others who have decided to not throw off the yoke of monarchy — I’m talkin’ to you, Canada.]

I realize that this complaint/recommendation borders on Academie Francaise-style attempt to resist the evolution of language.  But this one reflects deep and potentially harmful ignorance.  Analog computing, data storage, or input/output refers to technologies where values are represented by something that varies continuously in a way that is analogous(!) to the value it is representing.  Digital refers to methods where the information is represented by discontinuous markers that arbitrarily represent particular real values.  The simplest example is that a readout that has a dial (clock with hands, car speedometer with a turning needle) is analog, because the position of the dial is analogous the the value of time or speed.  A readout with digits(!) is digital, since they are arbitrary symbols that represent a particular exact value.  An important difference is that if the hands or needle moves a little bit it represents a slightly different value, while if the displayed digits are slightly altered they still mean exactly the same thing.  This has several implications, most notably that slight errors in analog systems can accumulate (because they “count”) while slight errors in digital systems disappear (because when a computer is storing something as either a 1 or a 0 — typical digital storage — and it is off by 5%, it is still treated as the original 1 or 0).

Computers can be either analog or digital.  Low-tech devices can either be analog or digital.  This printed page — whether you are reading it on a screen or you print it out (though I cannot imagine what would possess you to do that) — is digital.  That is not because I am writing it on a computer but because these little squiggles have a fixed arbitrary relationship to particular concepts and slight variations on how they appear  do not change what they represent.  So, a book is digital, as is an old mechanical adding machine. So is a cuneiform table or doing long division with pencil and paper.  But something that does not store, process, or display data is neither analog nor digital in this sense.  This knowledge should be part of basic literacy in this age, thus my peeve about linguistic drift obscuring the knowledge.

This morning I heard a news story about new Barbie dolls that have some kind of web-publishing camera built in.  (The story was about how this was new and scary and will facilitate kiddie porn — I am agnostic about that concern.)  The old Barbie was referred to as “analog”.  Now I will admit that I do not have direct experience with Barbie dolls, but I am pretty sure the old ones did not do any kind of data manipulation, analog or otherwise.  Of course, all dolls are analogs in the sense that they are anthropomorphs — they are analogs of human bodies — another useful sense of the word that will be misunderstood by the next generation if “analog” comes to mean “old”.
Those familiar with my usual area of work will guess that I am particularly annoyed by some aficionados of electronic cigarettes referring to real cigarettes as “analog cigarettes”.  C’mon people, there is nothing analog about them — there is no data involved at all, and they are not even analogs of something like Barbie is.  Indeed, e-cigs can be considered digital only by really stretching the term; they are digital only in the same sense that a lamp is — the switch is either on or off, digital values.  Actually, it is the somewhat higher-tech lights — those with a dimmer knob — that are analog!
Of course, language precision suggests the new devices be called electric cigarettes, since a heating element and simple switch does not make the cut for being electronic, usually reserved for actual computation or data storage (we say “electric stove” not “electronic stove”, and an e-cig differs from a hotplate primarily only in its miniaturization and non-electric accoutrement).  But that one does not seem too harmful.  Confounding the concepts of analog and digital, though, does not seem healthy for a population that is trying not to fall too far behind in its command of 21st century technology.
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2 responses to “There are no analog cigarettes (or digital ones)

  1. When I first became involved in the ecig community there were a lot of discussions about language. 'Vaper' and 'vaping' emerged around then and 'juice' which raised a few heckles because it sounds childlike or something for junkies. For ecigs there were some great suggestions and that's when 'personal vaporisers' turned up. That term never overtook the popularity of electronic cigarettes which was the original marketing description.

    There have always been folks who were annoyed by 'analogues' but it took off anyway and to be honest, just like we tried to use alternatives to 'cigarette', I don't see that it will stop.

    My favourite for ecigs is 'technofoggers'.

    Maybe we could have 'smoky fags' and 'foggy fags' ;-)

  2. I'm pretty sure that the voltage regulation circuitry in my (and most) electric (electronic? I think so) cigarette is, in fact, digital.

    At the very least, it's certainly electronic in the frequent understanding of the word, as it contains a small chip that is not simply mechanical/electrical.

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