Digital?

What strikes me repeatedly in these readings is a certain stumbling at the threshold of analog and digital, two very different Ways. It’s about more than how the numbers display on your clock. How to say the difference succinctly? I’m tempted to be quasi-poetic: the analog is what you’re used to, the digital is what amazes. We are, still, a culture of analog thinkers and we work in analog ways that are simple extensions of how our bodies do things.

Digital is something else altogether and, not coincidentally, it’s like Capitalism: everything and anything is everywhere and anywhere instantaneously and continuously, the same way capital moves from short-term investment to short-term investment, relentlessly probing the system for quick profits that make up an astonishingly increasing percentage of “income.” Traders who are still working analog soon drive cabs. Goldman Sachs rules the world because its computers autoshift capital from investment to investment with nano-second triggers that maximize their profit at the expense of both their rivals, who miss out, and the entire analog industry—that world where actual people go to work and make stuff. If you think in analog, you think of time as duration, hands of a clock sweeping around the world measured out in hashmarks. If you think in digital, there is no time, only the Now of systems cranking away within systems instantaneously reconstituting your world continuously: Heraclitus gorged on amphetamine.

Licklider keeps thinking in analog ways about his anticipated digital environment. He titillates himself thinking about speech control as cutting edge (“Siri, define ‘analog'”). What would be digital? Not interface, certainly: mouse, touchscreen, it’s all analog. See your digits’ smears on your ipad screen? that’s the grease of analog bumbling around on analog. Do you think Goldman Sachs is happy with the analog interfaces in its trading system, or that it’s zeroing them out as much as possible? Instead of interface (the “enter” between two faces), think flows between neurons and wireless. Not an analog body-self and an analog computer, but a high signal-to-noise environment of think/do flows. All the talk about screens and updating workstations is analog box-think. Move along folks, nothing happening here.

Another way of saying this is not to overly worry about Comcast imperiling the open internet: they’re an analog distribution system about to be leapfrogged by 5G and 6G wireless the way Ma Bell style telephone systems never happened in the hinterlands beyond Globalization’s most venerable nodes. Another way of saying this is that you won’t catch up to that eleven year old with a controller in his hand by learning which button does what in each game. S/he’s half-digital: he has no idea about it… it just flows.

The digital isn’t just a new technology added to our world to which we’ll adjust, like trading in the buggy for a Model T. The Graduate had the right word but the wrong definition of it: the future is plastic, but not the analog stuff we’re recycling. Think instead of the word’s art world sense, kinda like play-doh: as in, the digital malleability of the now and the here, the everything at once every way at once, the network that continuously reconstitutes its nodes as the system cranks away faster than light, ours anyway. Hello, node: what are you now? And now what? And…

You see the analog also in the editor’s impoverished view of the anthology’s opening Borges story: it’s read as a precursor of hypertext. Um, no. More like the holographic universe of realities that form as we perform them. The way light is particles if we look for it that way, but wave or field if we look at it those ways, or the way particles separated by distance, it would appear to the analog mind, “know” what each other is up to.

Ultimately, that is, the digital is requires field-theory thinking rather than analog’s particle-thinking. But that’s another tome. Wiener and Licklider didn’t quite make it to the promised land.

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