The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 31 asks, “Automation has made it possible to produce so many objects—from bread to shoes—without the intervention of human hands (assuming that pressing a button doesn’t count). What things do you still prefer in their traditional, handmade version?”
Give me an old-fashioned, handmade iPad every time. You know the kind: Each one unique and prone to its own errors and quirks but the one that does some things uniquely better than any other iPad.
I know. It doesn’t exist, and why should it? But I have had favorite typewriters. And I continue to insist that I did not like the “feel” of certain computers, knowing that they are each the same, but still insisting that I can feel a relationship.
In one of my all-time favorite conversations, a friend and I attempted to identify whether various everyday objects were digital or analog. Not digital and analog devices and tools themselves, mind you. Not a digital watch versus a watch with a face, or “old” things versus “newfangled” digital things. We were looking at whether a device’s form or its function define its role in our world. (Of course, strictly speaking, we all live in an analog world in which digital—either/or—devices play a part.) In our game, if an object’s function defined its form, we declared it analog. If form ruled function, it was digital. (I know that this is a very incomplete analogy for digital versus analog.)
We were on a golf course while having this discussion, and we decided that my eight-iron was analog and his putter digital. You should have seen that putter.
In another conversation, this with my college roommate-slash-house philosopher Mike Pizzo, I found myself explaining in too much detail my ideas about this same concept. He sat patiently, waited for my big finish, and replied, “It’s heart versus brain,” which was his own pet analogy for, well, everything, but it also worked here.
Digital tools break tasks down into minute, discrete chunks. Analog audio records a stream containing a wave of sound, and a vinyl record or magnetic tape plays that stream of sound back; digital recorders also capture a sound wave but do so by capturing snippets of it at regular intervals, and digital players play back those snippets so quickly that it sounds like a stream of sound.
(Here’s a way to understand analog and digital. When I need to remember a letter’s place in the alphabet, I still sometimes silently sing the “Alphabet Song” I learned when I was a child and stop when I get to the letter in question. That is analog. If my brain was digital, each of the 26 letters would be equal and unique unto itself and I would be able to call up a letter’s file in question—the file for “G” says it is the seventh letter, for instance, but I needed to sing the song and count on my fingers to get that—without using its relation to the other letters in the alphabet.)
Digital audio and video are infinitely reproducible and can be manipulated almost to infinity (“that picture is fake! It was Photoshopped!”), and analog audio and video are not. In the digital world, there is no such thing as the phenomenon of “copies of copies,” in which a later generation copy of a document looks very little like the original, master document.
Conversations about a world that is only either digital or analog are digital; the rest are analog.
We live in a (mostly) digital world, a world that offers infinite reproducibility along with speed, the ability to produce the same loaf of bread or pair of pants or pop song again and again, the ability to meet goals more quickly by performing multiple, discrete tasks at the same time when once upon a time one had to perform those tasks in a particular order. (To get to “G,” I had to recite the alphabet part-way. What if I had all 26 letters’ files running in my head at the same time? “G” would be always already available to me.)
Automation gives us the ability to run multiple tasks at the same time with perpetually reproducible results. It gives us products that we can not have a personal relationship with, in spite of my insistence that I have a “feel” with certain computer keyboards. When perpetual reproducibility is something that is desired as a thing in itself, it can be disastrous.
Chaplin ridicules the heartlessness of automation for the sake of automation in one of his greatest films, 1936’s “Modern Times.” (If you are bothered by the sound of silverware scraping on a plate, this clip may irritate you.) It is a part of the famous 15-minute factory scene in which Chaplin’s Little Tramp eventually loses his mind while performing his gruelingly mindless drudge of a job (tightening bolts that are subsequently hammered by the worker beside him). The sales pitch for the “feeding machine” offers it as a way to “eliminate lunch hour” and stay ahead of the competition by keeping workers on the job while they are eating. Of course, the dance that is required to maintain anything like smooth operations is a delicate one and once any small element goes awry, the Tramp is almost beaten to death by the napkin holder.
Was my computer or your iPad built by a worker while they were being fed by a machine that held them in place on the assembly line?
I guess in my sloppy way I’m calling this “digital.” As in the conversation with my friend in which we declared certain things analog (handmade) and others digital, things that are not thought of in these terms, I offer the example of my haircut. The worst haircuts that have ever been foisted on me were automated in this way: a single set of clippers, five minutes and, “Next!” Those haircuts make me look like I have an audition next week for a acting job as a Marine gone bad. (And I am not an actor.) My current barber is more hands-on and takes 40 minutes on my head. He utilizes each pair of scissors in his arsenal. Each task on my head is addressed in turn and not rushed. He does not try to attack the whole job at once with a pair of (digital) clippers, unlike the mall hair cutters. I leave feeling like a piece of marble that had been worked on by Michelangelo. There is a line out his door most Saturday mornings.
The products of automation, much of the digital world, gives us a lot that is disposable, forgettable. Merely a long sequence of zeroes and ones. Useful, yes, but I like having things that show evidence of a human hand at work, evidence that someone cared. Like my killer haircut. I guess I want to see a hand-written sequence of zeroes and ones that would make a quirky iPad.
“We live in a (mostly) digital world, a world that offers infinite reproducibility along with speed” – so true. I suppose with many art forms that are digital, reproduction cannot be stopped, and yet I always hope that the original author (if not their creation) would not be lost amongst the infinity of copies.
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