Shaky Distinctions: A Dialogue on the Digital and the Analog

(From e-flux journal)

Upon reading Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan’s 2019 essay “An Ecology of Operations: Vigilance, Radar, and the Birth of the Computer Screen,” I ended up having an extended email dialogue with the author, which has been condensed and edited here. What struck me most about Geoghegan’s essay was a fundamental question: Are computers a visual medium, like cinema or photography, or are computers better understood in nonvisual terms? While a term like “surveillance” evokes visual metaphors of watching and monitoring within computational capitalism, what if digital media operate more through “capture” and other nonvisual metaphors, as Phil Agre has argued?

Geoghegan and I began by discussing the relation between computation and visuality, but it soon became clear that we had very different positions on the nature of the digital and the analog. The conversation turned toward a slightly different set of questions: What is the digital? What is the analog? Both terms appear elementary at the outset. Yet they turn out to be teeming with technical and philosophical nuance. Conventionally speaking, digital technologies represent the world via discrete units, while analog technologies operate through continuous variation. At the same time, discrete and continuous techniques are some of the oldest in human culture, evident in poetry, music, metaphysics, politics, and many other areas. So do the narrow definitions of digital and analog tech also migrate into domains like aesthetics and philosophy? Would a digital aesthetics follow the principle of discrete units? Would a digital philosophy be discrete as well? And what would that mean in practice?

Digital devices are ubiquitous in contemporary life, yet, as this dialog reveals, some of the most basic questions of the digital age have yet to be answered.

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