The Digital Revolution is a term describing the effects of the rapid drop in cost and rapid expansion of power of digital devices such as computers and telecommunications. It includes changes in technology and society, and is often specifically used to refer to the controversies that occur as these technologies are widely adopted.
The underlying technology was invented in the last half of the 20th century and became economical for widespread adoption after the invention of the PC. The digital revolution transformed technology that previously was analog into a binary representation of ones and zeros. By doing this, it became possible to make multiple generation copies that were as faithful as the original. In digital communications, for example, repeating hardware was able to amplify the digital signal and pass it on with no loss of information in the signal.
In multimedia applications, the digital revolution marked the transition from the storage of information on fixed material objects dedicated to specific purposes (books for words, phonograph records or audio cassettes for sound, film for images), to the storage of all information in a binary digital format, which is readily stored on a variety of media. Of equal importance to the revolution was the ability to easily move the digital information between media, and to access or distribute it remotely.
The digital revolution goes far beyond multimedia applications. By having digital copies of records stored in databases, and having those databases accessible over digital networks, the digital revolution essentially put an end to privacy as previous generations understood it. As the revolution moves forward, virtually every aspect of life is captured and stored in some digital form. When you shop in the United States, for example, you must trade your personal information for a discount on your groceries in many stores. In London you can expect to be caught on an interconnected network of video cameras several hundred times a day, while the British government plan to record biometric details of the entire population on a National Identity Register.
Underlying the digital revolution was the development of the digital electronic computer, the personal computer, and particularly the microprocessor with its steadily increasing performance (as described by Moore's law), which enabled computer technology to be embedded into a huge range of objects from cameras to personal music players. Equally important was the development of transmission technologies including computer networking, the Internet and digital broadcasting.
The economic impact of the digital revolution is, in many ways, undeniable. Without the Internet, for example, globalization and outsourcing would not be nearly as viable as they are today. Nevertheless, computers are not a silver bullet magically solving all problems they are applied to. For example, it can be argued that the coming forth of desktop publishing in the mid 1980s actually slowed office workers down. Whereas previously, they could just jot a quick note on a piece of paper and maybe photocopy it to three or four co-workers, now people feel the need to have spell checked, grammatically correct and visually stunning memos! With the wide spread acceptance of presentation software, now people spend uncounted hours preparing presentations for a few co-workers, when a chat at a chalk board would have accomplished nearly the same thing a generation ago.
Some innovations, such as the cell phone have clearer economic return. The cell phone had measurable impact on the productivity of the American worker in the late 1990s that was far greater than most other technological improvements.
While there have been huge benefits to the digital revolution, especially in terms of the accessibility of information, there are a number of concerns.
For those living in the present, the digital revolution has ushered in an new age of mass surveillance, generating a range of new civil and human rights issues.
From the perspective of the historian, a large part of our history is known through physical objects from the past that have been found or preserved, particularly in written documents. Although digital information is easily created, it is also fragile and easily deleted or destroyed. Changes in storage formats can make recovery of data difficult or near impossible, as can the storage of information on obsolete media for which reproduction equipment is unavailable, and even identifying what such data is and whether it is of interest can be near impossible if it no longer easily readable, or if there is a large number of such files to identify. These problems are further compounded by the use of digital rights management and other copy prevention technologies which, being designed to only allow the data to be read on specific machines, may well make future data recovery impossible. Interestingly, the Voyager Golden Record, which is intended to be read by an intelligent extraterrestrial (perhaps a suitable parallel to a human from the distant future), is recorded in analog rather than digital format specifically for easy interpretation and analysis.
From the perspective of the privacy advocate, digital information today is far too easy to reproduce, and far too hard to destroy. Once a piece of digital data is put onto the Internet, it is copied by search engines, various archives and other places. If you posted an article about a teacher in your high school using illegal drugs to a blog, that information would be readily available to anyone searching the Internet for years, regardless of the truthfullness of the story.