The word digital comes from the same source as the words digit and digitus (the Latin word for finger), as fingers are often used for discrete counting. Mathematician George Stibitz of Bell Telephone Laboratories used the word digital in reference to the fast electric pulses emitted by a device designed to aim and fire anti-aircraft guns in 1942. The term is most commonly used in computing and electronics, especially where real-world information is converted to binary numeric form as in digital audio and digital photography.
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Since symbols (for example, alphanumeric characters) are not continuous, representing symbols digitally is rather simpler than conversion of continuous or analog information to digital. Instead of sampling and quantization as in analog-to-digital conversion, such techniques as polling and encoding are used.
A symbol input device usually consists of a group of switches that are polled at regular intervals to see which switches are switched. Data will be lost if, within a single polling interval, two switches are pressed, or a switch is pressed, released, and pressed again. This polling can be done by a specialized processor in the device to prevent burdening the main CPU. When a new symbol has been entered, the device typically sends an interrupt, in a specialized format, so that the CPU can read it.
For devices with only a few switches (such as the buttons on a joystick), the status of each can be encoded as bits (usually 0 for released and 1 for pressed) in a single word. This is useful when combinations of key presses are meaningful, and is sometimes used for passing the status of modifier keys on a keyboard (such as shift and control). But it does not scale to support more keys than the number of bits in a single byte or word.
Devices with many switches (such as a computer keyboard) usually arrange these switches in a scan matrix, with the individual switches on the intersections of x and y lines. When a switch is pressed, it connects the corresponding x and y lines together. Polling (often called scanning in this case) is done by activating each x line in sequence and detecting which y lines then have a signal, thus which keys are pressed. When the keyboard processor detects that a key has changed state, it sends a signal to the CPU indicating the scan code of the key and its new state. The symbol is then encoded, or converted into a number, based on the status of modifier keys and the desired character encoding.
A custom encoding can be used for a specific application with no loss of data. However, using a standard encoding such as ASCII is problematic if a symbol such as 'ß' needs to be converted but is not in the standard.
It is estimated that in the year 1986 less than 1% of the world's technological capacity to store information was digital and in 2007 it was already 94%. The year 2002 is assumed 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").
Digital data come in these three states: data at rest, data in transit and data in use. The confidentiality, integrity and availability have to be managed during the entire lifecycle from 'birth' to the destruction of the data.
All digital information possesses common properties that distinguish it from analog data with respect to communications:
Even though digital signals are generally associated with the binary electronic digital systems used in modern electronics and computing, digital systems are actually ancient, and need not be binary or electronic.