Friday, July 22, 2016

GPS and Digital Technology

Many 21st century residents are highly attuned to technology as an instructional tool to plumb previously unknown mysteries of how our God-created world works and how man has harnessed its working features. The modern world supplies ample opportunity to study scientific advances occurring at an ever accelerating pace. 

Recently our automobile trip to a family reunion in Georgia gave us reason to examine popular current and past technologies and how our reunion attendees utilize them. Of 28 reunion attendees, 12 were “middle aged” Gen Xers, born between 1966 and 1981. The Digital Revolution began just before most of these Gen Xers were born. Most of them barely recall the onset of compact disc (CD) technology in the early 1980s. It was always part of their lives. CD technology was an important turning point in the Digital Revolution which has revolutionized our lives in multiple ways.

One of the family reunion Gen Xers was our daughter. About ten years ago she informed us she had just purchased a GPS (Global Positioning System) for her car. She explained it was able to pinpoint her location with a moving visual graphic of her car superimposed on her local street at that moment, complete with instructions on how to arrive at her programmed destination. For me, a member of the Silent Generation, born 1925-1945, it was merely one more example of a novel technological “digital miracle.” The days of awkward unfolding of paper maps and squinting at the maps’ fine print were a thing of the past.

The Digital Revolution is barely a half-century old. Until then all transmission of voice, image, and data was analog. In contrast, today almost all such communication is digital. What does analog mean? Parents of today’s Gen Xers were raised on analog media. It simulated what occurred when we perceived audible sound varying in frequency (pitch) and amplitude (loudness) in a constant modulation. This means pitch and loudness gradually and constantly changed to produce our perception of sound. Likewise, visual images consisted of a constant modulation of light waves in their frequency (color) and amplitude (brightness). Several decades ago vinyl records reproduced sound with physical grooves on the record to physically match and reproduce the pattern of sound waves in air. Vinyl records were, therefore, a physical analog of actual sound, producing an analog sound recording. Video cameras also used analog technology until recently. The color hues and image brightness recorded on the video tape matched the natural modulation produced by the external object.

GPS technology is one of the “newest kids on the block,” joining the ongoing flow of the Digital Revolution. All family members used their smart phone GPS apps to arrive at Georgia’s Lake Lanier. One week later, barely 24 hours after their departure, family members from six states had arrived home, their GPS units at the ready. Although GPS signals from three different satellites arrive at Earth by electromagnetic microwave radiation, digital mapping technology has enriched the Digital Revolution to provide modern society with life saving benefits. Airborne digital camera systems capture images of terrain and create mosaics of the earth surface features using plentiful related information from other sources.

What does a digital camera system do? It breaks images into thousands of tiny individual portions of discrete information rather than reproducing the smooth, continuous flow of sound or light information from old fashioned analog recording devices. Each of the thousands of individual portions known as a byte is usually digitally represented as a series of eight binary digits, either 0s or 1s. In this manner, information is represented symbolically. Later it is translated to more familiar auditory and visual stimuli with little loss of fidelity. Most people cannot tell the difference between an analog reproduction and a digital reconstruction of the original sound or light stimulus.

The advantages of digital technology over analog are enormous. Computers digitally store far more information now than was ever possible several decades ago. Digital technology has enriched our lives beyond the wildest imagination of the five family seniors raised as members of the Silent Generation. Our younger reunion goers were not nearly as astonished. We now live in the Information Age, an outgrowth of the Digital Revolution. 

The prophetic Book of Daniel contains a passage referencing the knowledge explosion in end times of Earth existence. Recognizing that human knowledge has been on the increase for hundreds and thousands of years, we perceive the current explosion as extraordinary. The passage in Daniel 12:4 concerning the explosion of knowledge has been interpreted as a clear reference to the stress inherent in end times. It is worthy of contemplation in terms of the positives and negatives of the Digital Age, also known as  the Information Age: “But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge” (NIV). One might wonder if the proliferation of information and the increase of knowledge gives us cause for concern or for thankfulness. Perhaps it is a cause for both.