Digital's doppelganger: The myth of analog media - Towards the "Rethinking Digital Myths" conference
Institutional Communication Service
6 December 2019
In view of the two-day conference on “Rethinking digital myths. Mediation, narratives and mythopoiesis in the digital age” organised at Università della Svizzera italiana on 30-31 January 2020, we are publishing a series of analyses on the myths of the digital age proposed by professors and researcher of USI Faculty of Communication Sciences. After the first piece on the fall of the Cyberspace myth by Paolo Bory and Philip di Salvo, we propose an analyses by Simone Dotto, University of Udine, and Simone Natale, Loughborough University.
“The world we live in is analog,” claims an article published in a web magazine on digital design. While “computers are digital,” the article continues, “information and signals come from the physical world and need to move back into the physical world for us to perceive them. No matter how ‘digital’ our electronic devices get, they always require interfaces that translate signals from the physical world into the digital world of electronics.”
The article reiterates a recurring narrative on the distinctions between “the analog” and “the digital” which is well-rooted in our common sense. The very idea that a “virtual” world represents a different but comparable environment to the “real” one rests on the conviction that the two terms, analog and digital, belong to separate and parallel dimension of our existence. Yet, as Jonathan Sterne underlines, such a view is based on a mistaken understanding of the term’s meaning which expands “the idea of analog to cover everything that is not-digital” and “rhetorically figures the primary point of comparison—whether historical, ontological, aesthetic, institutional, or in some other dimension—as between digital technologies and everything else in the world.” Originally analog described instead a specific technological operation - which, by the way, may be performed even by computers themselves. While digital computing converts any quantity in numerical and thus discrete values, “analog computing” manipulate continuous quantities to perform calculations. In no way this concept can be applied to describe the whole physical world, let alone “reality.”
The pervasiveness of the analog in the digital imagination
While the idea that a technical form of reproduction makes us closer to the world is largely a deception, a critical approach to this widespread (mis)conception may be revealing of the social and cultural values ascribed to technologies. The persistence of the same imaginary reverberates, for instance, in the affective meanings that are attributed to analog media, perceived by many as an escape from the ubiquity of digital devices. The return of vinyl records, which after their near disappearance in the 2000s experienced in the last few years a sharp growth, is to be intended in this sense as an integral part of the so-called digital age. In little details of our everyday life, we can find a trace of the role played by both the digital and the analog in our imagination. Rather than countering the impact of digital media, wearing t-shirts portraying old media and getting a polaroid to take pictures at a party evening serve just as an indirect confirmation of the mythical dimension that the digital acquired in our contemporary world.
Myths are sometimes developed by contrasting two concepts or ideas. The myth of Artificial Intelligence, for instance, emerged through the constant controversy between those that believe thinking machines possible and those denying this possibility. Like the protagonist of a romantic novel, the myth of the digital also needed its doppelganger, the analog, to become one of the most influential narratives in contemporary cultures.