Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sexy Talk about Analogues

Analogue thinking is vogue, at least in TED Talks and numerous articles, so I claim no originality in spite of having something to say.  Being old enough to have been an adult in the pre digital world, I can attest that no one then ever thought they were analogue thinkers, or even knew what it might mean.  It didn’t make any sense until computers became popular, which was a good twenty years after they became common.

The analogue world is a place where things are always in a state of becoming in one or more directions through cycles that never quite have a beginning or ending.  Think about something as simple and complicated as walking.  Everything is always in the process of moving from the place it was to the place it needs to be, passing through each moment without stopping.  Or consider  a field of wheat sowed, growing, harvested, plowed, and sowed again in overlapping processes that are always coming or going.  In the analogue world of nature, all things are emerging from somewhere, and shading into what will come next without ever stopping in any one place.  The human world was largely analogue until the digital age.  Even our technologically advanced devices were analogue: vacuum tubes, radio waves, ovens, gasoline engines, airplane wings, records and record players.  You get the idea. 

The binary, or digital world, is a world of ones and zeros, on and off, but never in between.  It has well defined beginnings and endings, but if enough ones and zeroes are strung together fast enough, they can approximate an analogue process.  In fact, they can do it so well that things analogue seem as quaint as Medieval monks copying manuscripts.  By reducing analogue processes to infinitesimal digital steps, we can better understand how they work, so it’s not all bad.  Introduced to the world of ones and zeros in the late ‘60s, I sat through hours of classes about how computers work, along with the basics of COBOL, FORTRAN and systems analysis.  Computers were housed in warehouse like rooms, whirring with magnetic tapes on giant reels, and staffed with Harry Potter elves in the back, keypunch operators in the front, and gargoyle type gate keepers whose job it was to tell clients that a computer couldn’t do what they were asking of it.  

It was all binary, but it didn’t lead to the binary thinking, except for the backroom elves.  Binary thinking that seems to dominate public discourse today didn’t even emerge with the advent of personal computers.  It didn’t happen until digital devices of all kinds began to populate daily lives, perhaps most especially the digital clock and watch.  

So what is binary thinking, and how does it differ from analogue thinking?  Binary thinking is structured with ones and zeros.  Something is either a one or a zero, it can’t be both, and there is nothing in between.  Analogue thinking is never a one or a zero but always somewhere in between, in the process of becoming one or the other without ever being one or the other, and maybe going in some other direction altogether. 

Binary thinking has always been around, though it was never called that in years gone by.  It exists among those who live in a black and white world where right and wrong, good and bad, this and that, she and he, are always either one or the other with (almost) nothing in between.  Binary thinking is a useful tool for making simple decisions.  All of us use it.  Sane life would be impossible without it, but it’s prone to misuse through prejudice, poor data poorly understood, and unsupported assumptions.  It’s often mistaken for what we absentmindedly call common sense, and it’s a lousy tool for making complex moral decisions.  Yet the language of public discourse has devolved into binary terms where one must be on this side or the other, decisions are either right or wrong, and left and right are believed to exist only at one end or the other.  Preparing the ground for domineering binary thinking was handled, ironically, by Luddite fundamentalists who asserted the inerrant truth of the Protestant bible, along with only one way of understanding how to be a Christian.  Their absolutism fitted nicely with the digital age and its many forms of binary thinking, even though they rejected (and still reject) the science behind the technology they use to produce their radio and television shows.

Analogue thinking has also always been around, equally not called that in years gone by.  It’s the bane of my friend Don, tired of two handed clergy who are always saying, on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.  Analogue thinking doesn’t have ones and zeros.  It’s always a moving process, comfortable with provisional truths of high probability, given what we are capable of knowing and verifying.  When I taught management, I often made the point that effective managers know how to make decisions based on inadequate information giving them the best probability for success.  As a pastor, I was known to proclaim that Jesus is the “Son of God,” all else is provisional.  “Son of God” being in quotes because it’s an inadequate analogue phrase, but the best we can do given the language we have.

Until the digital age subsumed almost everything in its path, public discourse was largely analogue.  Demagogues on the left and right had voices, sometimes strong ones, but decisions were usually in the hands of those wandering to and from the center, looking for workable agreements that each understood to be waypoints on a path to somewhere else.  Public discourse has become binary, or in more popular words, polarized.  It’s not that people have gleaned binary thinking from digital gizmos.  For the most part, they don’t understand how ones and zeros operate to make digital gizmos work.  I certainly don’t.  But their ubiquity makes binary thinking about complex issues seem ordinary, normal, and resolvable only when everything is either a one or a zero.  One side will win, the other will lose.  What other choice is there?


To use a trite phrase, what a dystopian future that would be.  Let’s see what we can do to restore analogue thinking to a place in the public discourse that leads in another direction. 

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