The following is the first installment of The Analog Life, a column I will be writing for Arthur magazine. PDFs of the entire cool issue are available from the url link above.
Human beings are basically bi. Bifocal, binaural, bipedal. Because of the basic symmetry of our bodies, and the cleavage of sexual difference, we have a yen for binary distinctions, for dualisms and polarities. Dark and light, male and female, day and night, active and passive, happy and sad. Such pairs are usually continuities, of course, and its impossible to draw hard and fast borderlines between the two poles. There is always a dusky, in-between realm, a zone of interdependency that confounds clear distinctions. Even something as seemingly evident as the sexual difference between male and female is maintained through a kind of blindness, not to mention the medical violence routinely practiced on the bodies of those rare birds who confound the scheme. But we love to polarize our world and ourselves, probably because in some sense we need to, like the way we need to see faces in clouds and weathered stones. The trick is to know when our binaries bind us, and when they serve the deeper greening.
The first time I started to think about the metaphysics of polarity was in high school, when, as a mystic stoner, I became obsessed with the I Ching. At the heart of that many-layered oracle book, whose shamanic core is over-laid with Confucian do-goodery, lies the distinction between Yin and Yang, those two forces pictured in the famous t’ai chi symbol that still serves as a primary logo of the hazy post-hippie groove. On paper, many of the symbolic associations of Yin and Yang are, at this point in cultural evolution at least, pretty predictable. You have feminine and masculine, firm and yielding, dark and light, etc. There are some nifty associations as well, like the south and north faces of a river, the north being Yang because it gets more sun. But the real strength of the system is how these polarities are implied in one another—the dot of darkness in the white wave, the seed of light in the black, and, even more suggestive perhaps, the sinuous line between them, a sine wave itself lodged within a fixed circle.
This circle suggests that the dynamic interplay of Yin and Yang are ultimately contained within the single flow of the Tao, a flow that springs from the depths of the same organic world that furnishes the lion’s share of the I Ching’s symbolism. At the same time, the divinatory mechanics of the I Ching are also based on a weirdly modern and even technological scheme: binary code. In order to construct the solid and broken lines that make of the sixty-four hexagrams, Yin and Yang in effect become zero and one. In one 11th century diagram, the developmental stages of the hexagrams are rendered in a perfect anticipation of binary computation. The Tao, in other words, is also digital.
Which brings us to another polarity, one that underlies much of our cultural turbulence and that inspires this column: the technological polarity between Analog and Digital. On one level, Analog and Digital are simply two different ways that we have discovered for coding information and transmitting forces with our machines and media. Analog is characterized by a wave of continuous variation; Digital by a discrete arrangement of discontinuous bits. If an era can be defined by its media, then our times represent the ascendant Empire of the Digital, which from another perspective looks like the wholesale slaughter of the Analog. The upcoming enforced switchover to digital television and the lost of old-school broadcast signals is only one sign of this essential transformation of the cultural matrix.
On another level, though, Analog and Digital are metaphysical metaphors as powerful as Yin and Yang. Besides reflecting a tension between waves and particles that reverberates throughout reality, these different coding regimes reflect fundamentally different ways of structuring and communicating our experience of the world. As the Digital Empire continues its remarkable and imperialistic take-over of cultural production, not to mention our lives as communicating beings, then we would do well to tune into these deeper differences. Whatever the benefits of the Digital (and they are considerable), the psychic and cultural costs of bit-driven interconnectivity are mounting. In the face of this, more and more folks are embracing the Analog life, as both media and metaphor.
Like a lot folks who did not grow up plugged to a circuit board, I first tuned into the Analog and Digital tango because it had something to do with music, with how sound was generated, recorded, and reproduced. The epochal shift from Analog to Digital was, needless to say, controversial. From the perspective of Joe Music Consumer—or at least a Joe Music Consumer old enough to have permanent paper cuts from ripping the plastic off of new LPs by sticking his thumb nail into the sleeve pocket—the controversy erupted most loudly with the introduction of the compact disc in the late 1980s. These tacky spangled discs, now piled in closets and thrift stores like millennial flotsam, vaguely recalled 7-inch 45s but represented an entirely different media beast. This different beastiness lies in the physics of sound.
Sound is a magical mind-vibe that occurs when your ear registers the fluctuating pressure of the air that surrounds it. The air is more like a fluid than an empty void, so that your eardrum registers vibrations the way the shoreline receives the waves generated by a heron splash in the middle of a lake. The analogy underscores one of the most important facts about soundwaves: that they are waves, undulating vibrations of pressure that mimic the ripples on the sea, or the fluttering of stratus clouds. For decades, the devices we used to record and reproduce sound simply transposed these undulating waves into different media. The variations in air pressure moved a needle which passed on the vibrations to the surface of a wax cylinder, and later a vinyl disc. When a needle subsequently rode that groove—which resembles a long continuous valley—its movements traced an undulation that was then amplified into more vibrating air. Once again your ears would be swimming in sound, but a ghost sound curiously transposed, especially once that variable waves of electrical current got in the act. Analog is analogy, a poem of information transfer: this is like that.
Digital recording and reproduction proceeds by an entirely different metric. Rather than analogy, the Digital proceeds by simulation. Instead of mimicking the continuous waves of the air, the Digital chops up those waves into discrete bits which can be etched onto plastic discs with the rigor of math. Though they are discontinuous, these bits are sampled from the original wave at such a rate that, once the corresponding frequencies are struck, the ear hears a flowing wave where, in reality (wherever that is), there is a step ladder of discrete points. There are great reasons for chopping up sound waves into these discrete and abstract units—accuracy, greater dynamic range, and resistance to noise (plus, if you are a big record company, the ability to resell your entire back catalog). Analog is intimate with decay, so that analog copies always degrade—the blurry, xerox of a xerox punk-poster effect. But digital copies are technically indistinguishable from the original, a fact that, among other things, destroys the very distinction between source and copy and unleashes a huge, messy hoard of file-sharing rodents into the cultural pantries of intellectual property.
I am no Luddite. Human beings are partly composed of their tools, and those tools, I believe, are destined to evolve. My bread and butter—the written word—remains one of the most revolutionary media technologies of all, so profound we think it almost “natural.” The emergence of digital computing may wind up having a similar if not greater effect, and cultural workers like myself need to have enough sympathy with the new regime to understand its logic and to amplify its creative and liberatory characteristics. But you don’t need to be a monkey-wrenching anaracho-primitive to see that there are serious problems with a thoroughly interconnected and digital world. While some of these problems feed into some of the massive planetary bummers now careening toward us from the near horizon of the future, the level that I want to focus on here is the cultural and personal. This is where I believe we can still illuminate and create a human future that does not shirk from the posthuman techno-apocalyptic world, but does not simply capitulate to an admittedly overwhelming tide. The ultimate monkey-wrench, perhaps, is the mind.
I first thought of the “analog life” when I interviewed Joanna Newsom for this magazine. Newsom, whose Ys album was recorded and mixed in analog, and designed to appear as a gatefold LP, talked about how she chose not to have a CD player or play any digitally encoded music in her house. It all seemed a bit precious to me—I am a format polygamist, although I draw the line at 8-tracks—but it got me thinking about the real differences between Analog and Digital when it comes to making and enjoying music. (Hint: it’s not about fidelity.) And this led me to think about all the ways that people choose to create and share culture outside of (or at least alongside) the manic, overhyped hothouse of Web 2.0—and, moreover, why it’s desperately important that we continue to do so. So in part the Analog Life is about bringing reflection to bear on how and why we use different technologies, old-school as well as new-fangled gear, and about questioning the razzle-dazzle shimmer that still cloaks digital and Internet culture despite the collapse of so many of its earlier utopian dreams. And I was one of those 90s net dreamers, so I know whereof I speak.
But I am also going to run with the football here, and take the Analog Life beyond the confines of technology. Analog means analogy, remember, those poetic correspondences that link This and That because This is like That. And what the Analog is like is the world that oftentimes appears in the rear view mirror as we jack into the posthuman future of data glut, surveillance, and the sort of twitchy multitasking that drives the pathologies of online mania. The Analog Life means Moogs and Polaroids and string bands, but it also means the life of organic matter, of flesh and animals and dreams and plants and planets. Some critics contrast technology with real life or nature or soul. I want to contrast two different ways of relating to technology, which at its essence is bosom buddies with poetry and the creative imagination. Analog and Digital are the Yin and Yang of human making and human communicating, and maybe even the human soul. We’ll be wrestling with them folks, at least until the whole cathouse goes up in flames. But until that time, which hopefully will not arrive, and maybe beyond it if it does, the Analog Life will parry the Digital—as escape tactic or guerilla theater, as ballast or bomb.