Clearly, going digital has changed our practices and methods—but has it also changed our underlying methodology and our conceptualization of the objects that we are dealing in?
The slogan of the so-called ‘digital revolution’ is hard to avoid in this context, and juxtaposing ‘the digital’ and ‘the analog’ in a somewhat metaphorical sense seems compelling. Early reflections on the technological paradigm shift—viz. Dieter Balkhausen’s “Die dritte industrielle Revolution. Wie die Mikroelektronik unser Leben verändert”of 1978—have perhaps unintentionally contributed to the mystification of ‘the digital’ by affording it ‘revolutionary’ status. As such ‘the digital’ is metonymically elevated to the status of one of the driving forces behind the change from a tangible goods oriented industrial society to a post-industrial society that deals in intangibles such as knowledge, information and services. While these intangibles would seem to be more akin to the abstract objects that traditional humanities focus on, concepts such as ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ are at the same time reductive—even in combination they cover only a small part of what makes up the phenomenology of the mental. But this is not the only conceptual incompatibility between traditional Humanities and the propagated ‘information society’. Even if we accept knowledge and information to constitute the outcome of cognitive and mental processes, this very perspective onto ‘outcome’ as a finite ‘product’ is what makes them problematic to process oriented thought. Humanities and Social Sciences conceptualize their objects as historical and dynamic—always in transition, and always contingent on historical contexts which are in flux. Seen from this perspective, mere information is trivial, because it lacks context, and the fact that digital media make even more information available will only increase the problem. Digital texts, if we merely conceive of them as delimited containers that carry a certain amount of information, will not help us to solve this problem either. Could it be that something is ‘wrong’ with the mode in which that information has been sampled? Is the digital modus operandi perhaps per se incompatible with the Humanities’ endeavor?
It might help to clarify what it means for a bit of information to be ‘digital’. In terms of signal theory, a digital signal is one that is made up of a series of discrete measurements that indicate the value in some parameter at different points in time. A digital signal can be represented in tabular format, or as a matrix. Analog signals by contrast are non-discrete—we tend to visualize them as amplitudes which may, perhaps, even be expressed in terms of a mathematical formula, but which in reality (i.e., as sensual phenomena) cannot be broken down into a string of individual bits and pieces with empty spaces in between.
From a humanists point of view, this idea of the digital is indeed hard to accept; it is almost anathema to what Humanists and Social Scientists study—the historical continuum of emotional, mental and behavioral responses of human beings who find themselves embedded in a world that is not just constituted by physical objects and empirical events, but to a large degree by just that—mental and behavioral responses of (other) human beings. But what exactly is so problematic about ‘the digital’, and what exactly makes it incompatible with the human experience of the world?
The core issue seems to be that of discreetness. Digital information processing and digital representation are based on the idea of the world as something that is experienced in terms of (if not even made up of) discrete, and hence measurable states. In order to be discrete, a phenomenon has to be clearly delineated and individuated. The pragmatic advantage of taking this approach is obvious: it makes phenomena measurable, thus rendering them suitable for a type of exchange where nothing is lost, or added in the course of the process. However, the metaphysical consequences of this mode of conceptualizing the world have troubled philosophers from the very beginning. Zeno’s well-known paradox of Achilles and the turtle which he can never overtake comes to mind. The little we know of Zeno (450 bc) as a person is owed to the first few pages of Plato’s Parmenidis. More important and widely discussed ever since Aristotle are the over 40 paradoxes which Zeno made up in order to defend his teacher Parmenides who had attempted to dispute the thesis of so-called ‘ontological pluralism’: that is, the idea that the world is made up of discrete entities. With his paradoxes of plurality and movement (of which Achilles and the turtle is the most famous) Zeno tried to demonstrate that this premise leads to logical contradictions. Accordingly, the gist of Achilles’ never ending race with the turtle was to prove that a description of the world in terms of discrete states—that is, as a series of measurements taken at individual positions along an indefinitely shrinking time line—will not be able to grasp what is evident to everyone: the fact that Achilles overtakes the turtle. Zeno took this to prove that the world is indeed just one entity, and not many individual ones.
Clearly, phenomenology and metaphysics do not go hand in hand in Zeno’s paradox—and neither do physiology and epistemology in the paradoxical situation which the human mind finds itself in. There is no paradox here either, for our own sensory apparatus performs just like the iPod: it registers discrete signals. This holds true for our sense of sight, our sense of hearing, our sense of touch: they all have a certain threshold below which they cannot distinguish discrete impulses as discrete, but rather begin to merge the individual signals into one. The threshold level is different in every sense, our sense of hearing being the one with the highest capacity for resolution since we can distinguish variances in pitch of 0.3% only (i.e., a 1,000 Hz signal from a 1,003 Hz signal) and down to a 30 ms difference in extension over time. But what turns all of this into music is—our brain. So where is the ‘digital revolution’ in a CD, other than in the brute sense of the technological apparatus? And even there the dividing line between analog and digital media gets blurred on closer inspection. For example, was there ever a truly analog photography? Photographic film is made up of crystals which, in terms of their density, account for the film’s physical properties, such as granularity, sensitivity to light, etc. Physiologically speaking, the fact that our eyes did not register this merely had to do with the size of the crystals. Epistemologically speaking, registering individual crystals simply does not make sense—we want the picture, not the pixel. In this perspective the technological dimension of the digital is rather trivial; it is by no means as new, foreign or revolutionary to us as its proponents would like to make us believe.
What is the conclusion to be drawn from this? For the humanities the potential benefit of the digital paradigm cannot reside in the technological ability to measure the finer grain and transmit that bit of information without distortion. As soon as our brain gets involved, we always deal—and will continue to do so—not in ‘the real thing’, but in our own arte facts: sensory information integrated into Gestalt like phenomena in as much as abstract ideas integrated into discourses embodied as ‘texts’ and ‘documents’.