Understanding Digitalization Through Digital8

Kay Snell

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For many consumers, the rhetoric surrounding the digital revolution perpetuates the idea that digital technology is newer and thus sleeker than its clunky analog predecessor. While this is often true due to the tendency towards the miniaturization of technology, this fact can be exaggerated and extended until the digital lacks form at all (Goddard, Javadi, Ross). In doing so, a binary is created between the well-known physicality of the analog and the nebulous digital. From the idea of the cloud as a formless, weightless entity to the gigabytes of data stored on phones, the reality of digital materiality is often ignored, much to the benefit of industrial technology developers who can obscure the harmful ecological impact from the public (Ross). Using a media archeological approach to digital materiality emphasizes the hardware and circuitry present in information technologies, much like the works of media scholar Friedrich Kittler (Goddard). When digital materiality is ignored or hidden, the foundations of digital technologies can be oversimplified to the point where it is unclear what it means to be ‘analog’ or ‘digital’ at all.

Through my focus on the 8mm video cassette format, in particular the Digital8, I argue that the transfer from analog to digital technology is not as clear cut as it may first appear and that media scholars should bring back into focus the materiality of the digital. To better explain the transfer between analog and digital technologies, I make the case for a model of history that emphasizes the technological foundations already present in the development of new inventions. I will also touch on the potential of backwards compatibility, which refers to the technological ability to utilize older formats on newer models, to better understand how technologies linger after they go ‘obsolete.’ 

The History of Magnetic Tape:

Technology is not created in a vacuum. As Raymond Williams argues in Television: Technology and Cultural Form, no technology has a single origin, as it pulls  from advancements in prior technologies.  8mm video cassettes are no different, as they are predicated by the first video recorder, the Ampex VRX-1000, which was introduced in 1956 (Jones 91). However, this technology was inaccessible to the vast majority of consumers because of its high price of $50,000 (Bellis). As a result, it was used in professional contexts for television rather than amateur recording (Bellis). This was followed by the more consumer-friendly Sony U-Matic in 1971, which used video cassette technology that provided ease of use, smaller size and better storage, but this too was built on the back of the developments in open reel helical scanning from Philips, Toshiba, and Sony (“U-Matic”). These advancements are made possible because of Dr. Norikazu Sawazaki’s prototype for the helical scan videotape recorder in 1953 (“Magnetic Videotape Recording”). Undoubtedly, Sawazaki’s invention can be attributed to the developments of many people in a messy lineage of contributing factors and fields (“Magnetic Videotape Recording”). That is to say, that video cassette technology was developed in a system that already had a purpose for it (broadcast television) and an understanding of recording operations which allowed for commercial evolutions until consumers could access the creative power of the technology. This nuanced lineage should be kept in mind as we look at development of the 8mm video cassette tape, because it illustrates the often slow nature of technological advancements. The 8mm format was first launched in 1984 by Eastman Kodak Co. with the Kodak Kodavision 2200 and 2400, followed shortly after by Sony’s own Video8 in 1985 (“Eastman Kodak Co. Wednesday Entered the Home Video War”, “The Video8 Format”). These were both brought into a market that already used magnetic tape in the form of the analog VHS and Betamax which were largely used for amateur-created and distributed media texts, although there were still professionally distributed tapes available on VHS and Betamax (“The Betamax Format”, “The VHS Format”, “The Video8 Format”). While VHS would eventually beat Betamax out of the market, the VHS consumer camcorders were large and impractical in comparison to the much smaller VHS-C. However, predating the VHS-C was the Video8 format created by Sony, which like the VHS-C differs from the larger VHS and Betamax because of its miniaturized form and handheld capabilities. 

The VHS-C and Video8 would remain in tight competition within the consumer market throughout  the 1980s, but eventually, both would be usurped in the 1980’s by Sony’s new innovation of Hi8 magnetic tape (“The Video8 Format”). Hi8 was created in response to the growing usage of VHS-C format (created by Panasonic,) which used smaller versions of VHS tape and had the advantage of VHS compatibility (“The Hi8 Video Format”). Hi8 tape is a particularly notable contribution not only because of its backwards compatibility to read and record in Video8 format — although it should be noted that Video8 technology cannot playback tapes recorded using the Hi8 format with limited exceptions — but also because of its capabilities with the soon to be developed Digital8 (Wallace). By understanding the way inventions overlap and foster the growth of new developments in reference to analog technology, this knowledge of a gradual transition can be extended and applied to the transfer between analog and digital. 

Fig 1. Dedeyan, Lori. “Video8” 18 July 2014, Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/124076687@N04/14500961777


Fig. 1.1: Dedeyan, Lori. “Hi8” 9 July 2014, Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/124076687@N04/14427350780

Digital8 was introduced by Sony in 1999 and sits right at the introduction of digital products into the mass consumer market. The camera (see figure 2) utilizes the ‘analog’ Hi8 tape but encodes it with a DV (digital video) codec (“Sony Announces Digital8”). This allows for backwards compatibility with the Hi8 and Video8 formats for playback, however neither Hi8 nor Video8 equipment are able to read the Digital8 format (Wallace). Much like the Hi8 tape slowly took the place of Video8 tape because of its superior recording quality, so too did Digital8 begin to replace the Hi8. Yet, this incorporation of past video formats highlights the gradual transfer between analog and digital technologies as their usage stretches out beyond their sell by date. The leap from analog to digital here was not so vast because the social foundations were already established as the majority of people using amateur video recording technology were already familiar with how to operate a video camera for personal usage and understood how to record on Hi8 tape. Furthermore, the physical Digital8 camera is remarkably similar in appearance and operation to the cameras that use Video8 or Hi8 formatting such as the Sony Handycam Vision (see figure 3).


Fig. 3: rtfarr1. “Sony Handycam Vision.” Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/28213445@N00/3283128957

The Analog vs. Digital Divide:

Media scholar Fredrich Kittler claims:

“The general digitalization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media…Inside computers themselves everything becomes a number: quantity without image, sound, or voice. And once optical fibre networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a standardized series of digitized numbers, any medium can be translated into any other…a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium” (Kittler i).

Kittler seems to believe that digitalization dematerializes the medium, but what does this mean for Digital8, which does not appear to be profoundly different from Hi8 formatting speaking in terms of operational materiality? First we must look at the difference between digital and analog.

As mentioned above, scholars like Kittler or Stewart Brand define the digital as discrete computerized units, either on or off, often in direct comparison to a continuous analog (Sterne 36-37). However, as Johnathan Sterne points out in his essay on the analog, this conception of discrete vs continuous does not work for magnetic tape amongst other technologies (37). Likewise, Sterne brings up Kittler in reference to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter and Kittler’s implicit claim that analog is more true to the real and thus closer to nature. This further propagates a dichotomy of analog and digital that places them on opposite ends of a spectrum when they can in some cases appear indistinguishable from one another (Lesurf 101). As physics and electronics scholar Jim Lesurf explains, “analog and digital signals are no more than mathematical representations of reality” and that “real systems and signals will show a mixture of analog (smooth continuous) and digital (quantised) properties” (Lesurf 100-101, 108). Much like Lesurf, Sterne understands this notion of analog as being tinted in nostalgia and idealized; he states that “in its time technologies that we now describe as analog (usually after the fact) were more likely to be understood as jarring or artificial” (40). To further drive this point home, Lesurf eloquently explains that “although it’s often convenient to assume a signal/system is one thing or the other, this mixed behaviour is an unavoidable consequence of the way the world works” (108).

In the case of the Hi8 magnetic tape, it can be used to physically record both analog and digital information. When Hi8 is encoded with the DV codec it uses lossy compression, an irreversible action which compresses the video frame by frame using the discrete cosine transform. In order to store the digital information on the tape, it must spin at twice the speed of the Hi8 analog format. Given the option, a user might be more likely to opt for the higher quality DV codec, but depending on the physical devices accessible to them, they may still use a Hi8 recorder or even a Video8 recorder with Hi8 tape for an analog version. When Hi8 tape is recorded using an analog format, the data is stored physically on the tape (like the digital recording,) further complicating the analog/digital dichotomy. However, recorded analog signals are not “quantized” in the same discrete format we see in a digital formatting, yet when broken down to the fundamentals both can still be read mathematically. An important question to ask when looking at this division, is how it affects the usage of the tape operationally.

On Digital Materiality:

While I did not have access to a Hi8 camera for comparison, by using the Hi8 tape with the Digital8 camera it added an element of the “elusive” materiality to something technically digital. Notably, by looking at the Hi8 tape with the naked eye, it is impossible to tell the difference between a tape that is encoded using an analog method or a digital one. Furthermore, by simply using the Hi8 tape at all for digital recording it challenges the idea that “once a signal has been digitally coded, it is virtually immune to distortion due to the nature of the digital coding system” because of the inherent deterioration that is possible when using magnetic tape (Jones 93). Through using the Digital8 camera and the Hi8 tapes, the physicality of the operation that many have come to associate with analog technology, despite being digital in nature, unveils the illusion of a nostalgic grandeur that is so often propagated. It is easy to fall into Kittler’s trap of an idealized materiality wherein operating analog technology starkly differs from a cold digital, but the reality of technology is more nuanced than it may first appear.

From Digital8, we can learn to demystify the idea of analog technology as materially separate from the digital when they may share common qualities. In doing so, we lessen the sentimentality of narratives retroactively imposed on analog technologies and can understand the subtleties of digital technologies to a greater degree. Likewise, by emphasizing a detailed model of history that incorporates the transition between analog to digital technology we can further reduce the arbitrary divides made between technologies and focus on genuine differences in pieces of technology.

This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


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Kay Snell is a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Media Studies program at UBC. Kay is interested in media theory and creative writing.