Beyond Analog v. Digital

“If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” This was the slogan of a store called All Things Scottish featured in a recurring Mike Myers skit on SNL in the mid-90s. Sometimes discussion of digital technology takes a similar turn. “If it’s not digital, it’s crap!” proponents seem to say. “If it’s not analog, it crap!” critics might retort.

In fact, concluding that all things digital superior to all things analog turns out to be just as misguided as the opposite judgment. After we’ve concluded that digital practices are no less “real” than analog practices and that a preference for analog practices is not necessarily an instance of naive or pretentious fetishism, then the harder, more interesting work of begins. That work involves figuring out what tools best fit the job and the person. As an interesting instance of this process I submit an exchange that unfolded yesterday on Twitter following this tweet by Jeremy Antley:

As someone preparing to write a dissertation in the coming months, I found this really interesting. I’ll let you follow the exchange as it took off from that tweet, but the gist of it is that the idea of writing out a long draft by hand resonated with a few (myself included), piqued the curiosity of others, and seemed entirely unworkable to some.

The point illustrated by this exchange is, to begin with, that writing by hand and writing with a word processing tool are not, at the experiential level, the same thing. There are things you can do with one method that you cannot do with the other, and vice versa. One medium limits you in ways that the other does not, and vice versa. But that is just the first step.

There’s a tendency to stop with that realization and then generalize one’s own preferences to apply to all people under all circumstances. It would be better to continue by asking how the relative strengths and weaknesses of a given medium fit with the requirements of the task at hand and with one’s own proclivities, tendencies, and idiosyncrasies. We are diverse enough, and the things we set out to accomplish sufficiently varied that it would be impossible to generalize about the superiority of digital tools or analog tools as a class.

I’ll leave you with one more related item to consider. In his article for Wired, Brandon Keim explores a variety of studies addressing the differences between reading on paper and reading on digital screens. The piece struck me as evenhanded and judicious in its conclusions.

Here’s the closing paragraph, and do note the good counsel to refuse Borg Complex claims of inevitability:

“’We should be wary of saying, “That’s the way we’re going to read in the future anyways, so why resist?”‘ said Mangen. ‘There is something to deep reading and deep thinking that is worth making an effort to preserve.’ Whether we need paper to do that remains to be seen. For now, though, there’s still plenty of life in those dead trees.”

One last point, as Keim’s article suggests, the differences between digital and analog reading experiences are often linked to the sometimes overlooked fact that we are bodies and our bodies are a consequential aspect of how we experience this world. As we evaluate our digital and analog tools, we do well not lose sight of this fact.