Digital Digital Get Down

In my mind, the digital encoding of the physical components of text makes sense, but I am struggling to understand how both image and sound can be digitally encoded. As a result, I am going to attempt to explain the process of digitally encoding text and hope that, in doing so, I can reason out the process of encoding of image and sound.

A 7-bit grid can produce up to 127 distinct characters (64 + 32 + 16… +1 =127). Of course, that is enough numbers to cover all of the letters in the English language (both capital and lowercase), essential punctuation, and then some. Thus, each letter of the alphabet can be represented using binary digits to activate the electric current that encodes the needed digital signal. These individual signals can be combined and sequenced to produce strings of text that we can then interpret and understand via a digital interface.

In theory, I would assume that this process of assigning numbers to text can be replicated with images and sounds. However, I do not understand how the actual image units or actual sounds units are assigned different numbers. I suppose I could see how different shades of color can be assigned numbers that then are activated on the binary level. But that would mean that a computer or digital camera would have to be pre-programed to recognize an enormous amount of shades in color. Sound, in that sense, seems more plausible. Or at least musical notes, because they are defined and structured. – Wait, is this really how it works? Or am I completely off on this? The more I think about it, the more I can see how it could be, but it really blows my mind. Looking at Figure 3 from “The Information Paradox” (Denning 472), I can now see how a CD is just a sequence of bits that can be read to activate certain sounds, texts or images. …But it’s still kinda crazy!

As for meaning, at this point, it seems only natural that signs and messages don’t contain meaning, but rather we interpret and apply meaning through our prior knowledge and the context in which we experience the sign or message. In fact, I feel kind of absurd for not completely understanding earlier in this course. That said, the two concepts from this week’s readings that really sealed the deal for me on that were Rocchi’s model of information and relativity (Denning 477) and Stuart Hall’s discussion of “profoundly naturalised” codes and signs (Hall 511-3). Rocchi’s model, which explains meaning as the interpreted association between sign and referent, alongside Hall’s explanation of certain interpretations as deeply ingrained cultural associations, helped explain my persisting question regarding how individuals can interpret the same meaning from an object if artifacts and signs themselves contain no meaning. What I was viewing before as meaning that resulted from transcendental truth, I can see now is simply a continuously reinforced association. That said, I still believe in universal truths, but I now see how those truths exist outside of the signs that we culturally assign them.

With that in mind, when we receive text messages there is no meaning in them. Rather, the messages are represented in a meaningful way, which allows us to interpret and understand them. Specifically, text messages rely heavily on the context and preexisting relationship between the individuals that send and receive them. For that reason, it can be relatively difficult to relay text messages with emotional or even ironic meanings. In order to successfully do so, the sender and receiver must understand to a certain degree the mannerisms, speech tendencies and general personalities of each other to motivate meaning in the words and symbols they send via text messaging. Even emojis become more meaningful if the relationship between the sender and receiver is more intimate.

In that sense, it is interesting to think about people’s online profiles as a map of meaning motivation. What are the different photographs and digital artifacts that they chose to represent themselves and what meanings to individuals interpret through them? What are those meanings before you meet a person? How do they change once you get to know that person? I think that’s a pretty typical example of how we already understand this concept without knowing we understood it.

Denning, Peter and Tim Bell. “The Information Paradox.” From American Scientist, 100, Nov-Dec. 2012.

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, 507-17. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.