Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the analog/digital divide has been around for an extremely long time. Some project this binary dichotomy back to the differences between the slide rule and the abacus. More generally, it can be seen as the difference between the body (outward, physical) and the mind (inward, psychological). This dichotomy may have been placed retroactively on such devices, but today, for many, the dichotomy has almost disappeared. As digital technologies creep into every aspect of our everyday lives, we see analog technologies taking a step back in retreat, causing major ripples in the way we live our lives. As a note, the use of the words analog and digital herein, apply both to the devices and machines they describe as well as the more theoretical ideas of our ways of experiencing life.
The differences between analog and digital can be very technical, or otherwise, extremely intuitive. This wiki entry won’t deal with the specific technical differences, but instead focus on the intuitive and theoretical differences. As explained by Carol Wilder, the word analog comes from the Greek roots ana, meaning equivalent, and logos, meaning the structure of reality. Hence, something that is analog in nature refers directly to the way things are in reality, or is equivalent with such reality. “As a level of description, it [analog] is closer than digital coding to the physical world, closer to corporeality, more kinesthetic, tactile, more-dare I say-‘real.’” This can be compared to the “digital level of description” which “represents a more abstracted disembodied consciousness, which is at once more expansive and less visceral” (Wilder 252). In this sense it is an aesthetic difference between how we encounter life and experience the world around us. Furthermore, Wilder quotes physiologist Ralph Gerard, who explored this dichotomy in 1951, explaining that “an analogical system is one in which one of two variables is continuous on the other, while in a digital system the variable is discontinuous and quantized” (qtd. in Wilder 243). It is from Gerard that we get the prototypical analog device, the slide rule—it’s continuous numbering, as well as meaningful spatiality, wherein the further down the number is, the larger it is—and the abacus as the prototypical digital device, due to the ‘on-or-off-ness’ of the beads, where they are either counted or not. This latter conception of digitality has principally to do with the language of binary, used by today’s digital devices, in its utilization of 1s and 0s.
Differences in Language
One last difference is seen in the different levels of human communication. Gregory Bateson addressed this issue in 1966, in the form of a question: “How does it happen that the paralinguistics and kinesics of men from strange cultures, and even the paralinguistics of other terrestrial mammals, are at least partly intelligible to us, whereas the verbal languages of men from strange cultures seem to be totally opaque?” (qtd. in Wilder 247). He goes on to explain that this is because written/spoken language is digital, due to the arbitrary assignment of words to their meanings, and paralinguistics are analog. Paralinguistics, all of the nonverbal communication as well as the way the words are spoken (pitch, etc.), are analog because the meaning of this type of communication is directly related to it. Wilder further asserts that paralinguistics “is our primary means to communicate messages about relationship,” and at times written/spoken language can fall short of what we actually want to say in these situations, leaving paralinguistics as our only means of expressing ourselves (247-248). Interestingly, for the most part, it is solely written/spoken (digital) language that is transmittable using digital communication, and thus we lose a powerful form of communication when communicating as such.
Transition and Effects
As stated earlier, the transition from analog to digital has been a long time coming, and the dueling ways of thinking and living have been around even longer. However, it has taken until the latter half of the 20th century for the full transition to digital to really take effect. With personal computers, DVDs and CDs, the Internet and online communication, digital phone networks, etc. there is a tangible trend today towards the digitization of almost every aspect of our lives. One major signal could be the shutting down of the analog television broadcasting system in February of 2009; another could be the transition that has taken place over the latter half of the 20th century in the US from an industrial economy to an information economy, as well as the rise of globalization, neither of which would have been possible without digital technologies. At this point in time, the transition can most obviously be seen in the wealthier areas of the world, and affects the younger generations, who have been brought up around these technologies, more so than the older generations. Even still, this transition is taking place and will slowly permeate into poorer areas, and perhaps even the older generations.
Wilder quotes Neil Postman in saying that “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything” (240). This section attempts to examine some of these changes. The most encompassing change that the digital age brings is well described by Joohan Kim. He explains, “Before computers, different types of information required different types of communication channel . . . [and] also required distinctive methods for storage . . . but now, with computers, we can store all kinds of information with a single digital medium. . . . This means that the computer would be the primary medium for human communications in the very near future . . . the medium called computer literally becomes an extension of our body” (102).
Here we see that the computer and digital technologies may literally become the medium through which we see, understand, and interact with the world. Again, this has not fully taken place as of yet, but is the direction we seem to be heading in. It is McLuhan’s prophecy come true, for many of the younger generations already communicate, consume culture, make friends, etc. through the computer and the Internet, using these technologies, as they were, as extensions of themselves. For many, a friendship is not a friendship until it is consummated on Facebook or similar social networking sites. There is definite resistance, but not much that can be seen amongst the young. While these are more abstract effects, this transition also has very real effects for the ways we experience the world in a more theoretical sense. These effects can be seen in three different, although connected ways: the way we see ourselves, the way we communicate, and the way we see the world.
The pervading use of digital technologies into our everyday lives can have enormous effects in our conceptions of self. Inherently, digital technologies are more inward focused. We interact with their external components, but these are connected to internal workings of which most of us have very little idea how they work. Alternatively, in the age of analog technologies, the majority of people could have some understanding of how their machines worked, and in fact, sometimes one could understand it simply from studying the mechanism. With digital technologies however, it takes increasingly specialized skills to achieve this type of understanding. The same could be said perhaps, in reference to ourselves. As digital technologies came more into our lives, we have taken to focusing inward on ourselves, so much so that it now takes specialized professions (psychologists, psychiatrists), to help us understand ourselves.
Shanyang Zhao, in studying the effects of online communications by teenagers, found this exact idea in the creation of the digital self (his term for the online persona affected by those engaging on online communications): “The digital self is . . . more oriented toward one’s inner world, focusing on thoughts, feelings and personalities rather than one’s outer world, focusing on height, weight, and looks” (396). This is not to say that people who are connected online no longer care about their physical characters—it would be ridiculous to claim so—however, in online communications, the psychological is discussed more, and more thoroughly, than in face-to-face dialogue, partially due to the anonymity digital communication can provide.
As mentioned above, the difference between analog and digital is apparent even in the general discussion of face-to-face human communication. Words appear as digital communication, while body language, tone and rhythm of speech, etc, can all be considered analog communication. In communicating digitally, through online media, we lose these paralinguistic aspects of communication and are forced to allay the full meaning of our conversation through words. This can be thoroughly difficult when attempting to communicate something as intimate as feelings where, typically, words can fall short. Surely this issue has been apparent in communicating through earlier technologies before the advent of truly digital communication, as both letter writing and especially telegraphy are technically digital forms of communication since they convey solely the digital aspects of language.
While the advent of videochatting and other, less-text-based online communication methods brings some of the paralinguistic techniques to the table, the most important (especially to intimate communication), touch, has yet to be unlocked online. Furthermore, this sense is the very one that ties us to the analog world itself—the world we experience around us—for while we may see or hear things that are digital, we cannot touch them for they are not laid out in front of us tangibly.
Although online communication is typically used to further the foundation between people that they establish in the ‘real world,’ it still does have effects in the way we communicate as human beings. The focus on the digital elements of language, and the leaving behind of the paralinguistic ones, could have major adverse effects on our relationships if online communication continues in popularity as it has. Even more so, the ability to easily and cheaply communicate with people the world over erases spatio-temporal restraints and effectively erases the boundaries of bodies, which, while it could be positive in some circumstances, could result in complete disembodiment, leaving our bodies aside and placing total importance on our minds, similar to the very nature of digital objects themselves.
In dealing with the digital we are dealing in things that are intangible. We can touch a computer, we can touch a DVD or a CD, but we cannot touch the contents they contain for they are located in encoded bits of information. All the more, the experience of the world comes through to some by way of the Internet and their communications through it. An empirical example of this can be seen in the constant need to photographically document all aspects of one’s life that is prevalent among many young people today.
The great amounts of storage available on digital cameras have made it so that we can literally document everything that happens to us on a given day without having to reload the camera. Not having to develop anything, we can take these pictures immediately home and upload them: instant memories. But this new mode of image capture and image distribution has not come without serious epistemological consequences. Digital photography has fundamentally altered our relation to images of the world—how we come to have knowledge and form beliefs about the world.
Bernard Stiegler addresses this radical change in his essay “The Discrete Image.” Stiegler, drawing on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, argues that with analog (i.e. photochemical) photography, the viewer had a certain faith in the fidelity of the image to some actual past event; this belief is completely elided in the realm of the digital, what Stiegler calls “the discrete image” and the “analogico-digital image.” As Stiegler explains:
The digital photograph suspends a certain spontaneous belief which the analog photograph bore within itself. When I look at the digital photo, I can never be absolutely sure that what I see truly exists—nor, since it is still a question of a photo, that it does not exist at all. The analogico-digital image calls into question what Andre Bazin calls the objectivity of the lens [l’objectivité de l’objectif] in analog photography, what Barthes also calls this was [le ça a été], the noeme of the photo. The noeme of the photo is what in phenomenology would be called its intentionality. It is what I see always already, in advance, in every (analog) photo: that what is captured on the paper really was. This is the essential attribute of the analog photo. That it would then be possible to manipulate this photo, to alter what was, this is another attribute, but it can only be accidental; it is not necessarily co-implied by the photo. This may happen, but it is not the rule. The rule is that every analog photo presupposes that what was photographed was (real). (“Discrete Image” 150, emphasis in original).
Stiegler emphasizes that even though analog photos could be manipulated, it was not the rule; it is merely “accidental” and does not fundamentally alter the belief that what is depicted actually was. This logic is reversed with the transition to digital photography: “Manipulation is on the contrary the essence, that is to say, the rule of the digital photo” (150). To have the very essence of the mode of image capture overturned in such as radical way affects people’s consciousness, and their faith in the reality of photographic images, a faith in the objective lens that will transmit a real this was, is shaken: “this possibility, which is essential to the digital photographic image, of not having been, inspires fear—for this image, at the same time that it is infinitely manipulable, remains a photo, it preserves something of the this was within itself, and the possibility of distinguishing the true from the false dwindles in proportion as the possibilities for the digital treatment of photos grows” (150, emphasis in original).
For Stiegler, the analog photo is a positive artifact, a touching form of mediation. Indeed, Stiegler points to the Barthesian sense of photographic affectivity as well as the very literal touching of the light which touched the photograph’s subject and its subsequent retransmission to the eye of the spectator: “Nadar took Baudelaire’s picture, and between Baudelaire and myself there is a chain, a contiguity of luminances: when I look at this portrait, I know intimately that the luminance’s that come to touch my eye touched, that they really touched Baudelaire” (152, emphasis in original). It is this very continuity that is the essence of the analog; as Stiegler says, “This whole chain of duplication, from Nadar to me, is necessary in order for the photographic reality effect to take place, this whole ‘umbilical cord’ constituted by the photons that come to imprint and physically touch, from out of the nineteenth century, the photosensitive silver halides” (152, emphasis in original). Stiegler has an entirely different impression of the light that is captured by the digital photograph: “With the digital photo, this light, from out of the night, no longer comes entirely from the day, it doesn’t come from a past day that would have become night (like the photons emanating from Baudelaire’s face). It comes from Hades, from the realm of the dead, from underground: it is the electric light, set free by materials from deep within the belly of the earth. An electronic light, that is to say, a decomposed light” (153, emphasis in original). A footnote makes it clear that Stiegler is referring to “Carbon, petroleum, uranium” (173) coming from the earth to create the electric light from Hell. While Stiegler’s tone here is rather hyperbolic, he is getting at an important distinction to be made within the discourse of analog/digital transition: that is, the often utopian tones of a “digital immaterialism.” Sean Cubitt rightly points out that the rhetoric of digital media as “immaterial” and thus “clean” technologies, especially compared to previous industrial technologies, just doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny:
In theory, digital communications substitute for energy-hungry transportation, encourage people to stay home in villages rather than risk the desperate conditions of the slums, and prepare economies for transition to the supposedly weightless condition of the advanced information economies. The sad truth is that digital technologies are more, not less, polluting and energy-hungry than predecessor media like film and print. The environmental footprint of digital media comes in several phases: (1) The extraction of raw materials, including rare earths and gemstones often mined under appalling conditions, and subject to strategic struggles to secure supplies among the major powers (for the case of sapphires, important for LED fabrication . . . (2) the manufacturing of computers and computer parts on offshore, unregulated and immiserated areas such as the maquiladoras of the Mexican-US border region . . . (3) the built-in obsolescence of the computer industry, based on constant cycles of updates and system changes (4) the energy requirements of manufacture and of use . . . (5) the recycling and dumping of unwanted computers, many of which pass through donation programs to the developing world before finding their inevitable way to the nightmare of recycling villages, notably in West Africa and Southern China. (“Dirty Media” n.p.)
With his emphasis on the “surgical precision” (154) with which photographs can now be manipulated due to their digitalization, and the stench of death that is carried by electric light, Bernard Stiegler makes clear his thoughts on the transition from analog to digital. Even further down the pessimism scale we encounter the German “media scientist” Friedrich Kittler. For Kittler, the transition to digitization through optical fiber networks means an end to medium specificity:
People will be hooked to an information channel that can be used for any medium—for the first time in history, or for its end. Once movies and music, phone calls and texts reach households via optical fiber cables, the formerly distinct media of television, radio, telephone, and mail converge, standardized by transmission frequencies and bit format. . . . The general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses turn into eyewash. Their media-produced glamour will survive for an interim as a by-product of strategic programs. Inside the computers themselves everything becomes a number: quantity without image, sound, or voice. And once optical fiber networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a standardized series of digital numbers, any medium can be translated into another. With numbers, everything goes. Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping—a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium. Instead of wiring people and technologies, absolute knowledge will run as an endless loop. (Kittler 1-2)
This leads to the experience of the actual digital world. If our experiences of life are leading to a digital exploration of it we could ask the question, “Can ‘being-in-the-World-Wide-Web” be another way of becoming a “being-in-the-world’?” (Kim 88). This question itself works on both the levels of the Internet and simple digital experiences offline. In other words, if in the future, way down the line, we become bodies in space whose every experience comes through digital impulses (the ultimate death of analog) will it be the same as inhabiting the real world? In a far simpler restatement, is the digital real? It would seem it isn’t, however as time goes by and digitalism pervades further and further, perhaps it will become the only real, only the true death of analog will tell.
Resistance May Not Be Futile
“At one point I wondered why my teenage son-denizen of the digital age-covets my old analog vinyl records? Why has the New York subway system, encountered such resistance as they try to move riders from using analog brass tokens to digitized Metrocards? … Why do people who spend time online with each other want more physical contact, not less? (Wilder 241-242). While the transition to digital may seem imminent (albeit slow moving) examples such as these abound. People still carry around Polaroid cameras, in a report on CBS, Charles Osgood stated “that people ‘yearn for analog sound in this digital age’” (qtd. by Wilder 249). There is definite resistance to the movement into digital, and this is an aesthetic decision. More than aesthetic, this is a decision of feeling. For with the loss of analog we lose endearing qualities of the old. We lose the feel of a record in our hands, and the 'pops and hisses' we hear as it plays. We lose the click of the camera that while it may be reproduced digitally, will never sound like it did when actual mechanisms were making the it. And we lose the feeling of solidity, instead of metal and wood receiving plastic and silicon. Instead of being hugged, receiving hug messages from friends. The decision for many is that the experience of the ‘real’ means more that the experience of the high tech. This may be what keeps these analog experiences around, as while the digital pervades people shy away and yearn for the real.
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Kim, Joohan. "Phenomenology of Digital-Being." Human Studies 24 (2001): 87-111. J-Stor. 29 Nov. 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20011305>.
Wilder, Carol. "Being Analog." The Postmodern Presence : Readings on Postmodernism in American Culture and Society. By Arthur A. Berger. New York: AltaMira P, 1997. 239-53. The New School. 29 Nov. 2008 <http://homepage.newschool.edu/~wilder/beinganalog.pdf>.
Zhao, Shanyang. "The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others." Symbolic Interaction 28 (2005): 387-405. 09 Sept. 2005. Caliber. 29 Nov. 2008 <http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/si.2005.28.3.387>.