The essay excels when it comes to history and mechanics. Wolf goes back to the origin of computers (1800, J.M. Jacquard) and the first known photograph (1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's view of rooftops from the window of his study) in order to start her story. She doesn't hide behind jargon or accepted vaguenesses: Like a science teacher, she describes how things work, beginning with a description of analog (a word that comes from "analogous," meaning from likeness) versus digital (simply, images that transform light into coded data).
But for those new to the subject, finding metaphors for the difference between analog and digital is challenging. First and foremost analog takes into account the intervals between values (our body temperature index, for instance, is 98.6, not 98 or 99). Analog also encompasses nuances of duration. If we envision analog imaging in terms of a clock with hands that tell time, we see the current moment relative to other minutes in the 12-hour period. A digital clock, on the other hand, is a closed system: we see a notation of the exact time at that particular moment distinct from any continuum. The broad, open-ended quality of analog timekeeping is absent (which may be why digital watches were a passing fad: our desire to visualize ourselves in the full spectrum of time remains strong).
Yet another way to think of digital information in photography is to call to mind a work of art molded by the human hand that exists in the physical world: for instance, Rodin's bronze sculpture The Thinker (1880). Now picture that subject rendered in plastic Lego building blocks. The first is an organic shape with rounded forms of a seated man in contemplation, elbow poised on his knee with chin in hand. The second is an object composed of individual geometric units that may resemble the original figure in space, but is limited to a structural system. What allows digital photography to better render the physical world is that pixels get smaller and smaller with technological advances, resulting in images that are less static and more like the continuous tone of analog photography.
On the question of whether digital imaging represents a rupture in photographic history, or just a development of earlier threads (albeit with leaps involved), Wolf mostly sides with the conventional wisdom among art historians that digital imagery is no more disturbingly new than artists working with assistants (which also goes way back but has baggage attached to it). She hedges a little—"digital photography is both distinct from and embedded in the history of photography"—but ultimately suggests that photography-as-truth may be the aberration.
"Perhaps future historians and anthropologists will look back on the history of photography and find that there was a finite period—roughly 150 years—when objectivity in visual record making was held dear."
At the same time, objectivity feels like a moving target and maybe not the most thought-provoking yardstick. If we accept that reality is more subjective than we formulated it to be during the Italian Renaissance (where most of our fixed-perspective Western way of looking originated), then isn't more subjective photography inevitably more objective, by adhering more closely to the nature of its base or object?
(Aside: If you have not seen Woody Allen's hysterical Love and Death, you have to. It harpoons sentiments like the one I just wrote. I am harpooned.)
What I yearned for from the book were more moments like that one—where Wolf makes claims (whether I agree with their conclusions or not) whose boldness is commensurate with her formidable intelligence and years of experience. I wanted more manifesto, more future. This just isn't that book. If you're in the market for a more focused, more insightful, and more beautiful book by Wolf, pick up her 2007 Prestel volume on Mapplethorpe's Polaroids (sold at Elliott Bay).
Unless you do want an intro to digital photo—in which case grab this volume, also sold at Elliott Bay. No events or talks are scheduled around the book's release, but there's a rumor that an exhibition might be in the works on the subject of The Digital Eye. May it be a hundred times more nuanced, yet a hundred times louder, too!