Digital Revolution
A visualization of the various routes through a portion of the Internet.

The Digital Revolution is the change from mechanical and analogue electronic technology to digital electronics which began anywhere from the late 1950s to the late 1970s with the adoption and proliferation of digital computers and digital record keeping that continues to the present day.[1] Implicitly, the term also refers to the sweeping changes brought about by digital computing and communication technology during (and after) the latter half of the 20th century. Analogous to the Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution marked the beginning of the Information Age.

Central to this revolution is the mass production and widespread use of digital logic circuits, and its derived technologies, including the computer, digital cellular phone, and the Internet.

Theoretical background

Long Waves of Social Evolution Source

The notion of the digital revolution is part of the Schumpeterian theory of socio-economic evolution,[2] which consists of an incessant process of creative destruction that modernizes the modus operandi of society as a whole, including its economic, social, cultural, and political organization.[3][4]

The motor of this incessant force of creative destruction is technological change.[5][6] While the key carrier technology of the first Industrial Revolution (1770-1850) was based on water-powered mechanization, the second Kondratiev wave (1850-1900) was enabled by steam-powered technology, the third (1900-1940) was characterized by the electrification of social and productive organization, the fourth by motorization and the automated mobilization of society (1940-1970), and the most recent one by the digitization of social systems.[2] Each one of those so-called long waves has been characterized by a sustained period of social modernization, most notably by sustained periods of increasing economic productivity. According to Carlota Perez: "this quantum jump in productivity can be seen as a technological revolution, which is made possible by the appearance in the general cost structure of a particular input that we could call the 'key factor', fulfilling the following conditions: (1) clearly perceived low-and descending-relative cost; (2) unlimited supply for all practical purposes; (3) potential all-pervasiveness; (4) a capacity to reduce the costs of capital, labour and products as well as to change them qualitatively".[6] Digital Information and Communication Technologies fulfill those requirements and therefore represent a general purpose technology that can transform an entire economy, leading to a modern, and more developed form of socio-economic and political organization often referred to as the post-industrial society, the fifth Kondratiev, Information society, digital age, and network society, among others.[7]

The Agricultural Revolution led to agricultural cities in the ancient world in the Middle East, Mesoamerica, China, the Indus Valley, Southern Europe and South America.

The Industrial Revolution and Digital Revolution are now taking place concurrently in China and India as people leave the rural areas for industrial and high tech cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Mumbai.


Brief history

The underlying technology was invented in the later half of the 19th century, including Babbage's analytical engine and the telegraph. Digital communication became economical for widespread adoption after the invention of the personal computer. Claude Shannon, a Bell Labs mathematician, is credited for having laid out the foundations of digitalization in his pioneering 1948 article, A Mathematical Theory of Communication.[8] The digital revolution converted technology that had been analog into a digital format. By doing this, it became possible to make copies that were identical to 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. 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 turning point of the revolution was the change from analogue to digitally recorded music.[9] During the 1980s the digital format of optical compact discs gradually replaced analog formats, such as vinyl records and cassette tapes, as the popular medium of choice.[10]

Origins (1947-1969)

In 1947 the transistor was invented,[11] leading the way to more advanced digital computers. In the 1950s and 1960s the military, governments and other organizations had computer systems.

From 1969 to 1971, Intel developed the Intel 4004, an early microprocessor that laid the foundations for the microcomputer revolution that began in the 1970s.

The public was first introduced to the concepts that would lead to the Internet when a message was sent over the ARPANET in 1969. Packet switched networks such as ARPANET, Mark I, CYCLADES, Merit Network, Tymnet, and Telenet, were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s using a variety of protocols. The ARPANET in particular led to the development of protocols for internetworking, in which multiple separate networks could be joined together into a network of networks.

The Whole Earth movement of the 1960s advocated the use of new technology.[12]


In the 1970s the home computer was introduced,[13]time-sharing computers,[14] the video game console, the first coin-op video games,[15][16] and the golden age of arcade video games began with Space Invaders. As digital technology proliferated, and the switch from analog to digital record keeping became the new standard in business, a relatively new job description was popularized, the data entry clerk. Culled from the ranks of secretaries and typists from earlier decades, the data entry clerk's job was to convert analog data (customer records, invoices, etc.) into digital data.


In developed nations, computers achieved semi-ubiquity during the 1980s as they made their way into schools, homes, business, and industry. Automated teller machines, industrial robots, CGI in film and television, electronic music, bulletin board systems, and video games all fueled what became the zeitgeist of the 1980s. Millions of people purchased home computers, making household names of early personal computer manufacturers such as Apple, Commodore, and Tandy. To this day the Commodore 64 is often cited as the best selling computer of all time, having sold 17 million units (by some accounts)[17] between 1982 and 1994.

In 1984, the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting data on computer and Internet use in the United States; their first survey showed that 8.2% of all U.S. households owned a personal computer in 1984, and that households with children under the age of 18 were nearly twice as likely to own one at 15.3% (middle and upper middle class households were the most likely to own one, at 22.9%).[18] By 1989, 15% of all U.S. households owned a computer, and nearly 30% of households with children under the age of 18 owned one.[19] By the late 1980s, many businesses were dependent on computers and digital technology.

Motorola created the first mobile phone, Motorola DynaTac, in 1983. However, this device used analog communication - digital cell phones were not sold commercially until 1991 when the 2G network started to be opened in Finland to accommodate the unexpected demand for cell phones that was becoming apparent in the late 1980s.

Compute! magazine predicted that CD-ROM would be the centerpiece of the revolution, with multiple household devices reading the discs.[20]

The first true digital camera was created in 1988, and the first were marketed in December 1989 in Japan and in 1990 in the United States.[21] By the mid-2000s, they would eclipse traditional film in popularity.

Digital ink was also invented in the late 1980s. Disney's CAPS system (created 1988) was used for a scene in 1989's The Little Mermaid and for all their animation films between 1990's The Rescuers Down Under and 2004's Home On The Range.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989.


The first public digital HDTV broadcast was of the 1990 World Cup that June; it was played in 10 theaters in Spain and Italy. However HDTV did not become a standard until the mid-2000s outside Japan.

The World Wide Web became publicly accessible in 1991, which had been available only to government and universities.[22] In 1993 Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina introduced Mosaic, the first web browser capable of displaying inline images[23] and the basis for later browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. The Internet expanded quickly, and by 1996, it was part of mass culture and many businesses listed websites in their ads. By 1999 almost every country had a connection, and nearly half of Americans and people in several other countries used the Internet on a regular basis. However throughout the 1990s, "getting online" entailed complicated configuration, and dial-up was the only connection type affordable by individual users; the present day mass Internet culture was not possible.

In 1989 about 15% of all households in the United States owned a personal computer, by 2000, this was up to 51%;[24] for households with children nearly 30% owned a computer in 1989, and in 2000 65% owned one.


Cell phones became as ubiquitous as computers by the early 2000s, with movie theaters beginning to show ads telling people to silence their phones. They also became much more advanced than phones of the 1990s, most of which only took calls or at most allowed for the playing of simple games.

Text messaging existed in the 1990s but was not widely used until the early 2000s, when it became a cultural phenomenon.

The digital revolution became truly global in this time as well - after revolutionizing society in the developed world in the 1990s, the digital revolution spread to the masses in the developing world in the 2000s.

In late 2005 the population of the Internet reached 1 billion,[25] and 3 billion people worldwide used cell phones by the end of the decade. HDTV became the standard television broadcasting format in many countries by the end of the decade.


By 2012, over 2 billion people used the Internet, twice the number using it in 2007. Cloud computing had entered the mainstream by the early 2010s. By 2015, tablet computers and smartphones were expected to exceed personal computers in Internet usage.[26] In 2016, half of the world's population is connected.[27]

Rise in digital technology use of computers, 1980-2016

Analog to digital transition 1986 - 2014

In the late 1980s, less than 1% of the world's technologically stored information was in digital format, while it was 94% in 2007, with more than 99% by 2014.[28] The year 2002 is estimated to be the year when human kind was able to store more information in digital, than in analog format (the "beginning of the digital age").[29]

It is estimated that the world's capacity to store information has increased from 2.6 (optimally compressed) exabytes in 1986, to some 5,000 exabytes in 2014 (5 zettabytes).[28][30]


  • Cell phone subscribers: 12.5 million (0.25% of world population in 1990)[31]
  • Internet users: 2.8 million (0.05% of world population in 1990)[32]


  • Cell phone subscribers: 1.2 billion (19% of world population in 2002)[32]
  • Internet users: 631 million (11% of world population in 2002)[32]


  • Cell phone subscribers: 4 billion (68% of world population in 2010)[33]
  • Internet users: 1.8 billion (26.6% of world population in 2010)[27]


  • Internet users: 3.6 billion (49.5% of world population in 2016)[27]
A university computer lab containing many desktop PCs

Converted technologies

Conversion of below analog technologies to digital. (The decade indicated is the period when digital became dominant form.)

Decline or disappearance of below analog technologies:

Disappearance of other technologies also attributed to digital revolution. (Analog-digital classification doesn't apply to these.)

Improvements in digital technologies.

Technological basis

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. 3G phones, whose social penetration grew exponentially in the 2000s, also played a very large role in the digital revolution as they simultaneously provide ubiquitous entertainment, communications, and online connectivity.

Socio-economic impact

Positive aspects include greater interconnectedness, easier communication, and the exposure of information that in the past could have more easily been suppressed by totalitarian regimes. Michio Kaku wrote in his books Physics of the Future that the failure of the Soviet coup of 1991 was due largely to the existence of technology such as the fax machine and computers that exposed classified information.

The Revolutions of 2011 were enabled by social networking and smartphone technology; however these revolutions in hindsight largely failed to reach their goals as hardcore Islamist governments and in Syria a civil war have formed in the absence of the dictatorships that were toppled.

The economic impact of the digital revolution has been large. Without the World Wide Web (WWW), for example, globalization and outsourcing would not be nearly as feasible as they are today. The digital revolution radically changed the way individuals and companies interact. Small regional companies were suddenly given access to much larger markets. Concepts such as On-demand services and manufacturing and rapidly dropping technology costs made possible innovations in all aspects of industry and everyday life.

After initial concerns of an IT productivity paradox, evidence is mounting that digital technologies have significantly increased the productivity and performance of businesses.[34]

Negative effects include information overload, Internet predators, forms of social isolation, and media saturation. In a poll of prominent members of the national news media, 65 percent said the Internet is hurting journalism more than it is helping[35] by allowing anyone no matter how amateur and unskilled to become a journalist; causing information to be muddier and the rise of conspiracy theory in a way it didn't exist in the past.

In some cases, company employees' pervasive use of portable digital devices and work related computers for personal use--email, instant messaging, computer games--were often found to, or perceived to, reduce those companies' productivity. Personal computing and other non-work related digital activities in the workplace thus helped lead to stronger forms of privacy invasion, such as keystroke recording and information filtering applications (spyware and content-control software).

Information sharing and privacy

Privacy in general became a concern during the digital revolution. The ability to store and utilize such large amounts of diverse information opened possibilities for tracking of individual activities and interests. Libertarians and privacy rights advocates feared the possibility of an Orwellian future where centralized power structures control the populace via automatic surveillance and monitoring of personal information in such programs as the CIA's Information Awareness Office.[36] Consumer and labor advocates opposed the ability to direct market to individuals, discriminate in hiring and lending decisions, invasively monitor employee behavior and communications and generally profit from involuntarily shared personal information.

The Internet, especially the WWW in the 1990s, opened whole new avenues for communication and information sharing. The ability to easily and rapidly share information on a global scale brought with it a whole new level of freedom of speech. Individuals and organizations were suddenly given the ability to publish on any topic, to a global audience, at a negligible cost, particularly in comparison to any previous communication technology.

Large cooperative projects could be endeavored (e.g. Open-source software projects, SETI@home). Communities of like-minded individuals were formed (e.g. MySpace, Small regional companies were suddenly given access to a larger marketplace.

In other cases, special interest groups as well as social and religious institutions found much of the content objectionable, even dangerous. Many parents and religious organizations, especially in the United States, became alarmed by pornography being more readily available to minors. In other circumstances the proliferation of information on such topics as child pornography, building bombs, committing acts of terrorism, and other violent activities were alarming to many different groups of people. Such concerns contributed to arguments for censorship and regulation on the WWW.

Copyright and trademark issues

Copyright and trademark issues also found new life in the digital revolution. The widespread ability of consumers to produce and distribute exact reproductions of protected works dramatically changed the intellectual property landscape, especially in the music, film, and television industries.

The digital revolution, especially regarding privacy, copyright, censorship and information sharing, remains a controversial topic. As the digital revolution progresses it remains unclear to what extent society has been impacted and will be altered in the future.


While there have been huge benefits to society from the digital revolution, especially in terms of the accessibility of information, there are a number of concerns. Expanded powers of communication and information sharing, increased capabilities for existing technologies, and the advent of new technology brought with it many potential opportunities for exploitation. The digital revolution helped usher in a new age of mass surveillance, generating a range of new civil and human rights issues. Reliability of data became an issue as information could easily be replicated, but not easily verified. The digital revolution made it possible to store and track facts, articles, statistics, as well as minutiae hitherto unfeasible.

From the perspective of the historian, a large part of human history is known through physical objects from the past that have been found or preserved, particularly in written documents. Digital records are easy to create but also easy to delete and modify. 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 is no longer easily readable, or if there is a large number of such files to identify. Information passed off as authentic research or study must be scrutinized and verified.[]

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.

See also


  1. ^ E. Schoenherr, Steven (5 May 2004). "The Digital Revolution". Archived from the original on 7 October 2008. 
  2. ^ a b C. Freeman and F. Louçã, As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution, Oxford University Press, USA, 2002.
  3. ^ Schumpeter, Joseph Alois (1939). Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process. Martino Pub. ISBN 9781578985562. 
  4. ^ Online Course "Digital Technology & Social Change" (University of California), Hilbert M., DT&SC 4-2: Long Waves of Social Evolution
  5. ^ C. Perez, "Technological Revolutions, Paradigm Shifts and Socio-Institutional Change" in E. Reinert, Globalization, Economic Development and Inequality: An alternative Perspective, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2004, pp. 217-242.
  6. ^ a b C. Perez, "Structural change and assimilation of new technologies in the economic and social systems" Futures, vol. 15, 1983, pp. 357-375.
  7. ^ Online Course "Digital Technology & Social Change" (University of California), Hilbert M., DT&SC 4-3: How Societies evolve
  8. ^ Shannon, Claude E.; Weaver, Warren (1963). The mathematical theory of communication (4. print. ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 144. ISBN 0252725484. 
  9. ^ "Museum Of Applied Arts And Sciences - About". Museum Of Applied Arts And Sciences. Retrieved . 
  10. ^ "The Digital Revolution Ahead for the Audio Industry," Business Week. New York, March 16, 1981, p. 40D.
  11. ^ Phil Ament (17 April 2015). "Transistor History - Invention of the Transistor". Retrieved 2015. 
  12. ^ "History of Whole Earth Catalog". Retrieved 2015. 
  13. ^ "Personal Computer Milestones". Retrieved 2015. 
  14. ^ Criss, Fillur (14 August 2014). "2,076 IT jobs from 492 companies". (in Dutch). Retrieved 2017. 
  15. ^ "Atari - Arcade/Coin-op". Retrieved 2015. 
  16. ^ Vincze Miklós. "Forgotten arcade games let you shoot space men and catch live lobsters". io9. Retrieved 2015. 
  17. ^ "How many Commodore 64 computers were really sold?". Retrieved 2015. 
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ "COMPUTE! magazine issue 93 Feb 1988". If the wheels behind the CD-ROM industry have their way, this product will help open the door to a brave, new multimedia world for microcomputers, where the computer is intimately linked with the other household electronics, and every gadget in the house reads tons of video, audio, and text data from CD-ROM disks. 
  21. ^ "1988". Retrieved 2015. 
  22. ^ Martin Bryant (6 August 2011). "20 years ago today, the World Wide Web was born - TNW Insider". The Next Web. Retrieved 2015. 
  23. ^ "The World Wide Web". Retrieved 2015. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ "One Billion People Online!". Retrieved 2015. 
  26. ^ Tablets, Phones to Surpass PCs for Internet Use in Four Years. PCWorld.
  27. ^ a b c "World Internet Users Statistics and 2014 World Population Stats". Retrieved 2015. 
  28. ^ a b "The World's Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information", especially Supporting online material, Martin Hilbert and Priscila López (2011), Science (journal), 332(6025), 60-65; free access to the article through here:
  29. ^ Martin Hilbert (11 June 2011). "World_info_capacity_animation" - via YouTube. 
  30. ^ Information in the Biosphere: Biological and Digital Worlds, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2015.12.013, Gillings, M. R., Hilbert, M., & Kemp, D. J. (2016), Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 31(3), 180-189
  31. ^ "Worldmapper: The world as you've never seen it before - Cellular Subscribers 1990". Retrieved 2015. 
  32. ^ a b c "Worldmapper: The world as you've never seen it before - Communication Maps". Retrieved 2015. 
  33. ^ Arms, Michael (2013). "Cell Phone Dangers - Protecting Our Homes From Cell Phone Radiation". Computer User. Archived from the original on 29 March 2014. 
  34. ^ "Computing Productivity: Firm-Level Evidence". SSRN 290325 Freely accessible. 
  35. ^ Cyra Master (10 April 2009). "Media Insiders Say Internet Hurts Journalism". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2015. 
  36. ^ John Markoff (November 22, 2002). "Pentagon Plans a Computer System That Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans". The New York Times.

External links

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