Analogue or Digital: A Dichotomy

Issue 294
January/February 2016
A Food Renaissance

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Analogue or Digital: A Dichotomy
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Cover: Cover image: Tessa Traeger www.tessatraeger.com

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Luc Sala on why we need to maintain a balance between digital and analogue in life.

These days most people think that digital is the way to go. Digital is progress, and analogue is old-fashioned, even out-of-date. But the difference between analogue and digital should be understood, as it is fundamental in a practical as well as a philosophical context.

The digital age is not new. It started when God commissioned Adam to name all animals and birds (Genesis 2:19). Thus the process of ‘naming is framing’ started. Applying a limited set of symbols like the names of species is essentially digital, a good way to organise things, but it also restricts. ‘Analogue’ refers to continuous, unlimited, unsynchronised, non-discrete phenomena, something beyond name and measure – things like love and beauty. Most things in Nature are essentially analogue. The word ‘digital’ comes from digitus (Latin for ‘finger’), as fingers are often used for discrete counting and pointing. Numbers, letters and names are systems of representation. Using them requires following certain rules, and that poses restrictions. Writing is thus digital, while speaking is analogue. We need both.

There are clear advantages for using digital. It has made modern computers and communication possible. Error reduction and elimination of noise are where digital excels. Deconstruction of a whole into standardised parts has obvious advantages. Neil Gershenfeld of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, who champions digital production, uses the example of Lego to illustrate how discrete and limited-set components are effective, fast and error-free. The Lego example, however, also shows that while very complex structures can be constructed with digital, achieving beauty through it remains problematic.

One of the essential differences between analogue and digital can be termed as the distinction between love and truth. In our digital age, making such a distinction can help us to understand the direction of human evolution. The digital creeps up on us. Slowly all our media are becoming digital, and the tool most used these days to escape the analogue is the smartphone. Texting is obviously digital. For many, clicking on their digital pocket-secretary replaces the analogue medium of speech.

The advocates of digital assert that, with the limited set of symbols and exponential reduction in error, we can clean up communication, making it faster and reliable. Today we take these functions for granted in our digital world of internet, computers and media. Abandoning ambiguity. The truth reduced to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. Wikipedia has become the standard of human knowledge.

Time as a concept is analogue, but clock time is digital. Clock time ties us down, limits us. The timeless state of the soul, the higher self, is where we can get in touch with the absolute that rises above all dichotomy. One could say that God uses time to create the opportunity to transcend the distinction between love and truth.

Digital is about borders: distinction between you and me, your land, my land. Don’t enter my territory! Digital embraces the truth in science, which is based on fact and evidence. Analogue is about sharing, about common interest, about timeless sustenance and responsibility for values. It is slower. It is about feeling. With it mistakes are likely, as there is less effective error-reduction. Digital is more about measuring, feedback, fast response and effectiveness. Both have their points, but at the present time the balance leans towards digital. We need to redress that balance.

While the law is digital, justice reflects the analogue. The original legal system grew out of ritual and into a code. But Anglo-Saxon law has been based on rules; American contracts stipulate each and every eventuality. What is not included in a clause is not part of the deal. This system is more digital than Roman law, where principles, fair play and a sense of due diligence were prevalent.

In religion we see a similar division. There are rule-based and thus more digital religions, which tend to stick to the book; the set of rules is fixed: no bending allowed. You are either with us, or against us! Truth cannot be compromised! Then there are the more lenient religions, where rules are less strict, and forgiveness and love are prevalent. This distinction has deep roots. In essence we talk about magical and anti-magical religions. The more analogue religions cherish and honour the mystical, the intangible and timeless over sticking to the rules. Some religious thinkers are digital reformers, doing away with the ritual. They steer back to the rules and the rational.

Understanding the difference between rule-based digital and more flexible analogue can be applied to many areas of knowledge. In the medical field, the digital way is to use chemicals, surgery and other interventions, while the spiritual, herbal and holistic approach to healing is more analogue, focusing on restorative treatment.

By way of our emergent human self-consciousness we have traded love and interconnectedness for an obsession with fixed truth, inventions and individual recognition. We started to live in larger cities and at the same time we embraced individuality. Our language developed beyond the merely indicative. World culture moved towards a digital approach, with more rules and ‘hard’ truths, while being less guided by principles, moral values, intuition and undefined feelings. Increasingly we have placed our preference on the digital over the analogue.

The Eastern law of karma reflects the force of change in the universe, seen as a fundamental balance in the wider reality that includes the intangible spiritual realm, which encompasses totality. By contrast, the Western idea of the time-arrow of cause and effect is a digital one. Normal causality remains time-bound and strictly categorised as true or false, good or bad.

Inverting (or escaping) the cause-and-effect relationship offers us a way of defining magic. The analogue is the opposite of rational truth. In the analogue there are no absolute truths, fixed rules, or even errors. Everything flows; existence merges with the symbolic. Flexibility is the name of the game.

Digital is discrete, rational and left-brain, whereas analogue is holistic and right-brain. Life is not black and white: it is an ever-emerging, changing and unfolding experience.

Luc Sala is a Dutch writer about ritual, sacred journeys and cyberspace. www.lucsala.nl

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