Digitally Analogue

Posted by Nishant Shah at May 28, 2012 09:40 AM |
Why there is nothing strictly analogue anymore, examines Nishant Shah in this column that he wrote for the Indian Express.
Digitally Analogue

What we think of as analogue, is often only a form, because the mode of production

It is a given, that in the fight between the digital and the analogue, you have a certain perspective or an opinion. If you are a bibliophile and crave for the smell of second-hand books and the feel of freshly uncut pages, you probably object to e-readers and tablets which give you a book-like experience that is not quite the same. If you enjoy photography, you still value old film rolls, techniques of complex editing, and the sepia-coloured flatness that the film has to offer. If you are a cinegoer, you cherish a secret fondness for those days when the camera attempted to capture a realism which was stark and more believable than reality. You might miss receiving and writing letters, might get annoyed by the lightning fast expectations of communication, and are horror struck at the idea of buying clothes online, foregoing the pleasures of window shopping.

For each argument that is made in favour of the analogue, there will be an equally strong and strident voice that elucidates the joys and possibilities that the digital has to offer. The techno-savant will point out that the easy availability of digital technologies has democratised the realms of cultural production, granting more access and diversity to expressions from different cultures. It should be mentioned that the huge possibilities of manipulating, reproducing and transferring digital data, without any loss to the original has resulted in new forms of intricate and subversive cultural production. The speed of access and communication has mobilised resources and people in unprecedented ways, to make changes in their environments, empowering the citizen as an agent of change rather than a beneficiary of change.

In all these debates, there will be valid and contradictory arguments that will coexist, each extolling the virtues of their analogue or digital positions. While there is no correct position to take in this debate, there is something else that I want to draw our attention to. In both these debates, which seem to be about technologies, there is a presumed focus only on consumption of technology products. Or, in other words, in this over-emphasis about whether the final product should be consumed using digital or other technologies, there is a complete and total neglect of technologies of production that shape these cultural objects. This betrays two things for us to ponder over.

The first is about our relationship with the technologies that we use. As technologies, especially digital technologies become ubiquitous, easily affordable and available to us on mobile interfaces, and emphasises ease of access, there also seems to be an alienation of the user from conditions and modes of production. We seem to position ourselves only as consumers of tech products — often reducing our interaction with these technologies as spectators, or audiences or users. This is ironical because, it seems to perpetuate the schism between the digital and the analogue, while actually hiding the fact that most of our so-called analogue products have undergone dramatic change in their modes of production, which are facilitated and shaped almost entirely by digital technologies. You might enjoy the tactical experience of picking up a print book, but it might be good to realise that the entire book was put together by using digital interfaces. And while the book might seem to be a non-digital object, even the way it reaches the last mile — through e-commerce websites like Flipkart, or even your local stores, where it gets stored, sorted, and indexed — is also through a digital environment.

The second thing that this faux debate exposes to us is the futuristic dream of convergence. Convergence as a concept has been bandied around for about a decade now, where all our existing modes of living, facilitated by different technologies, are to be translated into the digital, thus seamlessly available through a single device which can perform everything. Convergence is the Holy Grail that marks our aspirations of the future. And debates of the analogue versus the technological sustain that illusion that it hasn’t really been achieved yet. However, as you look around you, you quickly realise that the analogue networks that we fantasise about very rarely exist. The analogue-digital divide is often reduced to the physical-virtual dichotomy and this is a false one. Analogue referred to certain kinds of technological practices where the human agent, by using the technological network could perform certain functions. So the older telephone networks, for instance, were electronic but analogue. However, our telecommunication went digital way before the phone became smart.

While those of us who were not born digital natives — we still remember what an audio cassette looks like and the smell of screen printing — will negotiate with the form of our access to cultural objects, it is also time to realise that being non-digital is no longer an option. And that what we think of as analogue, is often only a form, because the mode of production, design and distribution has gone digital when we were not looking. So it is good that you are reading this in print, as a part of a newspaper, but this column (like all other items in this publication) was conceived, written, delivered and printed entirely using digital interfaces. These are objects which now need to be thought of as digitally analogue. 

Read the original published by the Indian Express on May 27, 2012