We align analogue experiences with warmth, intimacy, nostalgia and tangible connection. We align digital experiences with business, mathematics, science and technology. Analogue is graceful and sensual yet humanistically scruffy. Digital is cold, precise, clinical. Digital is work, analogue is play.

My thesis is that to cleave these two concepts into a dichotomy (a digital notion) is to deny the fascinating, practical and surprising ways they complement and co-mingle with one another. I begin thus by describing the concepts of analogue and digital and follow through with how they interact. It is my goal to show you that they mutually support, rather than compete with one another.

Analogue = Experiences

The analogue form is called such because the relationship between it and an original experience is analogous. Analogue is Greek for proportionate, as in there is a direct relationship between the form and the original. An analogue experience entails being there in some way or another.

When it got its start, information and communication technology was primarily analogue: you had to be physically present to produce and consume it. Images and messages were composed one by one, and by hand — there was no distinction between the artifact and what it conveyed. To get from place to place, even abstract ideas had to be physically picked up and carried.

In early recording and replication technology, such as lithography, one would create a master on a durable material like stone and then ink it and take an imprint. In the case of sound recording, acoustic waves emanating from the performers would cause a large cone connected to a metal needle to vibrate, scratching the pattern of the sound directly into a wax surface. In the case of photography, light reflected off the subject would enter a box with a tiny opening in the front and react with a silver halide paste smeared across the opposing surface. Despite these techniques accruing sometimes centuries of refinement (and combinations with one another), they maintain the same principles. Every analogue recording, romantically enough, contains a at least a small part of the original experience.

Digital = Symbols

The digital experience, by contrast, is about symbols. A digit, as we know, is a finger or toe, as it would be used — in what would have originally been an extraordinary leap of abstraction — for counting. Therefore, in order to understand the digital form, we must understand symbols.

Symbols are an important part of being human. Symbols carry our language; they are our method of moving abstract ideas from person to person. Symbols are discrete, meaning they are noticeably different from one another. (The English language has conveniently provided us with an apt example: discrete does not mean the same thing as discreet.)

A symbol has no mass or volume on its own, but it is bound in some way to a physical medium. As such, symbols can be made arbitrarily large or small, dense or sparse. Unlike the physical stuff that carries them, symbols can be created and destroyed by changing the shape of the stuff. One symbol can be substituted for another freely as long as we can infer the intended meaning of the original. Symbols can be counted, compared, standardized and operated on in myriad ways, from arithmetic to bold-facing and onward.

We can decompose complex symbols into simpler ones and use the very same to reconstitute them, just as we do with words and letters, or prime factors of numbers. We can do this all the way down to the simplest symbol of all: the binary digit or bit, which can only exist as a yes or no. The bit was famously referred to by the pioneering cyberneticist Gregory Bateson as the difference which makes a difference.

The prevailing technology we use to manipulate symbols en masse is the electronic, digital, binary computer — but not every computer need be this way. That is, there exist analogue computers (like a mechanical clock, sextant or slide rule), as well as chemical, pneumatic and hydraulic computers of both digital and analogue varieties. There is even a digital computer made out of Tinker-Toys and powered by elastic bands. The first electronic computers used decimal numbers rather than binary digits. What we use now is what turned out to be the most convenient and versatile technology to produce, and it is rapidly subsuming every application involving symbols and discrete signals.

The way analogue signals are converted to messages of digital symbols is through a process called sampling. The waveform of the aforementioned sound recording would be sliced up into tiny slivers and each assigned to a symbol composed out of a certain number of bits. Likewise with the photograph, but instead it would be diced vertically and horizontally into square dots or pixels, and given a similar treatment.

Analogue Begets Digital (Begets Analogue)

Analogue and digital forms are inextricably connected. While the mechanism of an old grandfather clock may be analogue, the markings on its face (and how they are read) are digital. Gutenberg’s printing press was analogue, but the movable type within, being made of interchangeable symbols, was digital. Enjoying a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a park may be an analogue experience, but the notes on the sheet music that the performers read are part of a digital system.

Conversely, if we listen to the same performance on an iPod, which stores music digitally, the signal becomes analogue by the time it hits the headphones. If we watch our favorite speaker give an address on YouTube, her script, being made of words, is digital. The recording may well be captured, stored and transcoded in a myriad digital formats, relayed across the planet over several digital networks and displayed over a digital signal to a digital screen. Her rhetoric and the way we interpret it, however, is analogue.

The signal that saves the digital data of her speech to our computer’s hard drive is extrapolated from tiny analogue splotches of magnetically-polarized metal. The way the circuitry itself is made for our digital computers is analogue: spread some stuff on a plate and bake it! Our DNA — possibly our most intimate feature — is digital. It gets from place to place, however, in a fashion that is decidedly analogue.

At some point in the system, there has to be real stuff occupying real space and time, and that is inherently analogue. An analogue object can carry any number of analogue or digital channels, which can house any number of messages carrying any number of symbols. These symbols can then be transposed to other analogue objects or commuted onward into new analogue (and digital) experiences.

This essay originally appeared in issue #3 of RAINZine.