There are whole moments of human experience that cannot be reliably digitized, automated, or replicated. It’s true that the digital revolution is constantly pushing that boundary, effectively embracing more and more of the human experience. One could be forgiven for assuming that eventually everything will be digital. The Analog Underground is dedicated to the proposition that there will always be both. The quality of our professional and personal lives will be directly related to our ability to choose correctly when to be analog and when to be digital.
Digital Descriptions, Analog Experience
So what’s the deal with analog and digital? A trip to the dictionary has a certain hallucinogenic quality with definitions for “analog” talking about representations via physical quantities and “digital” reduced to the expression in digits without any mention of what’s being expressed. Lots of noise and a rush of wind, but what was that masked definition?
If you’re old enough to remember the introduction of the compact disc, you may remember the wounded yelping of audio-philes that the digital recordings simply weren’t as realistic as the old analog recordings of vinyl. That gets closer to useful without getting the whole way there. Much of what passes for analog these days does so only when compared to digital. The whole music debate is prime example. All those thrusting the analog flag aloft with a picture of an LP on it were a bit confused. LPs and CDs are both representations of a reality, a substitute for the real thing. Only the most resolute exercise in denial would suggest that the best vinyl on the best home stereo system is the same experience as getting dressed up, driving to the concert hall, wading through a pool of humanity to a seat and only then listening to a performance while that pool of humanity, building structure and orchestra does its thing. The couch and level 1, row 4, seat 21 are two different experiences.
Part of the problem is that being digital is part of a larger human tendency to blur the line between reality and the mere description of reality that stretches back centuries and even millennia. The essence of being digital is the substitution of some representation of reality for the actual thing. All that data we collect and massage and treasure is just reality once removed, and we’ve got lots of practice with that. Language, written or spoken, is just a representation. Joyce Kilmer was on to something when she realized that she’d never see a poem as lovely as tree. If you want to get really crazy in this vein you can begin yabbering about our senses separating us from reality so everything is a representation in our brain.
The essence of Analog is immediacy and presence without translation. For most of our human history immediacy and presence have been the predominant mode of experience. Our tools for description and representation were pretty static and obviously something other than the thing being described. The time required to create, store, transport and then display a representation always gave local experience a priority in our attention. We saw things with our own eyes and that was the truth.
What’s so Revolutionary about Digital
Long before digital computers arrived, there was a shift underway. Perhaps the first salvo of the digital revolution came with the Camera Obscura, a room size camera with roots as far back as the 5th Century B.C. China that reportedly confused some viewers as to whether the figures on the wall were real. The line between reality and representation began to blur. Many of the scientific discoveries and theories of the 19th and early 20th century called into question what our senses told us about reality. It sure doesn’t look like the world is made up of little bits of stuff called atoms or, even more incredibly, quarks and the like from quantum physics. At the same time the telegraph, telephone, radio, photography and recording technologies began to dissolve the locality of experience in a way that print and painting never could.
By the time digital computers arrived on the scene we were well prepared to grant representations greater creditability than immediate perception. Given the lack of sophistication of the early computing tools, they were applied only to fairly restricted, well-constrained problems of representation. The results were encouraging, well in line with how we felt about the other miracles of science and industry. Simple processes were simply automated.
However, we haven’t been content to restrict ourselves to simple processes. The digital tools got applied to more and more complex representations that were less and less well constrained. The scope of problems tackled expanded much more quickly than the capability of the computers. If the tools weren’t evolving quickly enough the only other choice was to edit or trim that messy old reality and that’s the on-going revolution.
We are more and more willing to accept the surrogate reality of the digital world over the actual analog reality that’s right in front of us despite ever more obvious discrepancies. Digital is easier than analog to measure, and measurement is a quasi-religious act in the new millennia. It’s easier to control, which is very seductive when it feels like things are getting more chaotic (or is our tolerance for ambiguity eroding?). It’s more predictable and many folks prefer a known result, good or bad, to a surprise. Digital, complex as it can be, is still easier to deal with than analog.
The Analog Response
The Analog Underground isn’t interested in rolling back the digital revolution to some arbitrary point in the past where things were “better.” Whatever point we would pick, we are not ready to sacrifice the improvements in science, medicine, business, communication and a whole host of other areas between now and whatever “then” we happened to choose. Nor is the Analog Underground about freezing the status quo, halting the digital revolution where it stands. One of the ironies of being at least partly analog is that there is no clearly defined status quo to preserve.
Digital drives to the tune of statistical norms and representational reductions. As we indulge our digital urge to describe and define, represent and model, we come to a fuller awareness of all the nuance of the analog world. Every new digital capability reveals two or three analog experiences or responses that we’d never really been aware of, that we had taken for granted. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, to want to trim things back to a more manageable picture of reality, even if that picture isn’t entirely accurate.
Close enough is a necessary human condition for dealing with all the variation we encounter day to day. There’s nothing new or revolutionary in that. What is revolutionary is digital’s intolerance for close enough. The picture must be trimmed until it is manageable. Accuracy takes a back seat. To marshal the power of digital, we have to sacrifice nuance. The Analog Underground is dedicated to pursuing close enough, to preserving the restless human exploration of the short-term and the sustainable, the expedient and the honorable, the crude and the elegant and everything in between from which we weave the meaning of our lives.