All around us, the world is making a steady roll into the digital era. Today, people don’t use day planners, they use Blackberry’s, People don’t use land lines, they use smartphones – homes built before 1995 seem like they don’t have enough electrical outlets, and even books, the most basic analog technology, have begun to go digital.

Is all this digital progression for the better or are we needlessly tossing out analog technology that is still valuable?

This question was brought on by a trip I took on Metro North (commuter rail) this week on my way out to play golf in Westchester. On this trip, for the first time, I noticed that the conductor was using a digital PDA type device to process cash ticket purchases. In the past I’ve seen conductors make cash transactions in fewer than 15 seconds, tearing and hole punching a paper ticket receipt with the precision of a surgeon. However, now armed with a state of the art PDA device (that appeared to be communicating wirelessly with a receipt tape clipped to his belt), this process now took several long minutes. The conductor fumbled with the device, shaking his head and poking violently at the touch screen trying to make it work – at one point he even physically banged the PDA against the receipt tape as if it would cause them to better cooperate.

Why was this switch made (from analog ticket pads to digital PDAs)? What was wrong with the analog version? Are we converting systems to digital just for the sake of being digital? Is it actually saving any time or money? How long do you figure it would take for the PDAs to pay off as an investment (the amount of time it would take for the saved paper of the tickets to make up for the cost of the PDAs)? 10 years? 20 years? What if a PDA breaks or is dropped before the end of its useful life?

Additionally, there is one more factor at play in the train anecdote. The PDA the conductor was using must have been somewhat new (this was the first time I saw them and I take Metro North fairly regularly), however it was visibly grimy and ill cared for. Its filth was even more noticeable when contrasted with the conductor’s signature hole punch (the one that contains a unique punch shape to prevent forgery). The hole punch was probably older than the conductors’ PDA by an order of magnitude, but appeared as if it was brand new and had just been freshly shined. Just by observing the conductor for 5 minutes as he passed by, I could tell he had pride in using his hole punch (the analog version), but hated using the PDA (the digital version).

Are there other analog systems that have needlessly and counterproductively gone digital?

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  • Andrew –

    Awesome insights! I have had this post open in my browser for a few days now, attempting to draft a clever response. Needless to say, nothing from my past jumped out at me. However, just this morning, while working in my kitchen, the doorbell rang…

    I received an overnight package for business, requiring a signature upon delivery. The United States Postal Service is experiencing the same “switch” from analog to digital that you observed while on the train. The process was gruelling, as I had to sign the traditional confirmation slip, while the poor post man was forced to scan my signature onto his digital PDA. Only, it gets better – the postal worker continued on to state, “This stupid thing and its small buttons!”

    – Keith Petri