Analog is about how we live our lives today—with digital technology. The book is about analog; but it is also about digital because both technological forms are inextricably conjoined in human history. The book explores how humans evolved to have a certain relationship with tools and toolmaking. This relationship was, of course, with analog tools.
Drawing from ‘philosophical anthropology,’ a branch of thinking that considers how humans, cultures, technologies, and societies interrelate, the book forwards the argument that not only are our original (non-digital) tools analog, but that we ourselves evolved as analog of these tools, and they of us. We are technology, and that technology is analog. In this context, the book asks what it means to live as analog creatures in a society dominated by digital. What have we both gained and lost through this momentous (and rapidly ongoing) transformation?
When we consider that our lives are governed increasingly by what computers allow us to do, many questions are raised. Analog shows that over the past 30 or so years, we have been participants in a massive social experiment, with almost no regulatory oversight over digital systems. As a result, we have in many ways become oppressed by these digital systems. We have changed ontologically and cognitively, and the possibilities of other ways of being have been profoundly constrained. To recognize ourselves as an evolved form of technology that has little in common with the logic and structuring of digital technology, means that we can begin to understand that we need to exercise more human-centered control over computer-based systems.
The early computer pioneer, Norbert Wiener, saw that we need to instill human ethics into computer systems. The title of his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, was an excellent distillation of his arguments regarding how human needs and wants, and not automation, should be the fundamental core of our relationship with technology. To recognize ourselves as a form of technology, as analog, as technology that is the opposite of digital in its form and logic, could be the beginning of a new and more humanly empowering relationship with digital systems—systems that can do much good if only we do not become subjugated to them, but they serve us instead. Wiener’s warnings were ignored for a long time, but recent developments in digital technology, not least in artificial intelligence, indicate that we are in danger of losing control completely.
I have taught and researched media and media theory for over twenty years and have been increasingly struck by how little we understand about the human relationship with technology, particularly as it relates to the present-day domination by digital form. The IT revolution happened so quickly, and with relatively little input by individuals and communities who were simply expected to adopt this new technological category and adapt to its instrumental logic and its monomaniacal orientation towards automation above all else.
Analog had been in gestation for maybe ten years. To research it, I began from the premise that “digital” presents us with an unprecedented philosophical opportunity. We never previously had to ask ourselves: “what is our human relationship with analog technology?” We didn’t ask it because there was nothing to compare analog with, there was no reason to ask the question—it simply didn’t suggest itself—until digital came along. Then digital came so fast, that mostly we forgot to think about what this transition actually meant at the level of ontology; what we had gained and what we had lost.
There is a great deal of research, and much of it boosterism, it must be said, regarding what we purportedly have gained through digitalization. There is efficiency in production (mainly automation), logistics, the Internet, social media, and so on. But little or nothing has been published about what we have lost from an embodied human perspective. And that is quite a lot, as it turns out.
In the writing of the book, I was drawn to the works of Martin Heidegger, Franz Kapp, and especially Arnold Gehlen, of the mid-twentieth century “German School” of philosophical anthropology. These thinkers combine a rigorous philosophical speculation with evidence of anthropology to think more deeply about how humans and technologies evolved to create the cultures, civilizations, and epochs that define us as the dominant species on earth by means of our relationship with technology. This body of work was pretty large, especially in the decades after World War II, but it was also somewhat niche and specialized and had remained that way up until today. For me, the arrival of digital has revivified philosophical anthropology, and compels us to think again, and think more systematically, historically and anthropologically, about what has become the analog-digital question.
Extending the work of Arnold Gehlen, who argues a deep and intrinsic relationship with humans and tools, enabling what he called the “helplessness” of our species to eventually survive and thrive, I argue that the relationship is in fact more than close—it is immanent, evolutionary, and co-constitutive. We evolved as toolmakers in the special way that we did, because we ourselves are a form of living and breathing technology. And we are not just technological—but analog too.
I show this partly through an etymology of the word “analog” itself. Historically, and going back to Democritus and Aristotle, and to Samuel Johnson nearer our own time, it had a much closer association with people as well as tools; but with the rise of digital, the term became associated with technology only, and was quickly framed (and defined) as being the opposite to digital, which we associate almost wholly with computers. As technological creatures of a specific category, therefore, we need to realize that digital is capable of many wonderful things, but it does not reflect who and what we are. We need collectively to control it, make its processes ethical and oriented towards human needs as opposed to purely instrumental and economic ones.
Analog begins with an introductory chapter on retro analog consumer technologies such as vinyl records, single-lens reflex cameras, music cassette tapes, and so on, and how these and many other things are popular today amongst not just older generations, but younger people too. The common rationale for this sustained popularity is that it is an expression of a kind of “nostalgia” for a supposedly simpler time, where cultural objects were tactile, material, and had an authenticity that digital objects don’t possess. Whilst there is something to this, I argue that “nostalgia” itself is an expression of something much deeper, something unarticulated in most of us at a conscious level That’s a feeling of lack or psychic displacement within us; a space created by the virtuality of digital and in the context of being objectively alone with a screen which is the condition that much digital interaction creates.
Being analog, as opposed to “Being Digital”, as Nicholas Negroponte put it in his celebrated eponymous1995 book, tells us why, as social creatures, we are not evolved for the forms of “sociality” that social media imposes upon us today. “Being” in front of a screen for several hours a day is a technologically evolved form of alienation, one we haven’t yet recognized, far less come to terms with. However, if unchecked and left without more regulation and democratic guidance, a digitally induced alienation is set to become our default state of “being” as digital reaches into ever more personal registers of life, of public culture, and democratic discourse.
My book is ambitious in many ways. It is a call to action about something that is so massive, so important, so comprehensive in its effects that, like our general acceptance of the science around climate change while being incapable as a world community to act upon it in decisive ways, we are unprepared psychologically to deal with the consequences, or even to acknowledge the damage already done, by the domination of digital. Moreover, the crisis in our technology relationship is invisible in plain sight, such that it seems kind of absurd to point to it and say: “computers are destroying what it means to be human.” I suppose a humbler desire for Analog is to say that the emergence and domination by digital has given us an opportunity to think more reflectively about our relationship with technology.
In Capital, Marx argued that in industrial society especially, the kinds of technologies we create, reveal something about our relationship with nature and social structures. Industrial machines expressed the need to dominate and exploit Nature, and for one class to dominate and exploit another. The orientation of industry and the machines it created, an orientation held back only by the level of technological sophistication at any given time, was to replace the human completely by machine process. And so, the underlying logic of capitalism, a system driven by competition whose rationality is to replace the human component in production through automation, is a logic that would lead inexorably to computerization.
It is no coincidence in nomenclature that the first working analog calculating machine devised by Charles Babbage in the 1820s was designed principally to replace “computers”–the name given to those who crunched the numbers for banks, insurance companies, etc., and who, like all humans were prone to sometimes costly error. And Arnold Gehlen, the philosopher of technology and anthropology wrote in his Man in the Age of Technology that “Technology is as old as man himself, for when we deal with fossil remains it is only when we come upon traces of the use of fabricated tools that we feel sure we are dealing with men.” He saw a “deep seated bond” between humans and technology. So do I.
I agree with Marx, too, that technology is encoded with the social and economic conditions of the “mental conceptions” as Marx called them, that bring any particular technology into being. Consequently, capitalism leads to the commercial Internet. This outcome wasn’t preordained, but something like it certainly was. In Analog, I wanted to push a revivified philosophical anthropology a little further and a little deeper in the light of digitality and argue that we are technology, and that form of evolved technology is and always has been analog. This is how we developed as Homo sapiens. And the tools that we developed, especially from the beginnings of the scientific revolution and the modern era, reflected much more our human needs and wants in all their diversities, and all across the pre-modern world.
I don’t argue that we need to get to some pre-modern age. Of course not. Digital technology and all that it has created cannot be uninvented. But its progress and its direction and application can be oriented toward human ends through democratic accountability. Failure to do so, leads inexorably to the opposite of democracy, something that Norbert Wiener, the inventor of cybernetics, foresaw. In The Human Use of Human Beings he wrote:
Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor.
To accept that we are technology, and that we are analog as well, will enable us to see what digital actually is. And it’s not who we are. Once we see it as antithetical to our needs if unconstrained, then once constrained we will have a tool that could create unimaginably positive things for our species, for Nature, and for the planet.
Robert Hassan teaches at the University of Melbourne. He has held visiting fellowships in Cardiff University, at the IAS at Durham University, and has lectured in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Baroda, India, and conducted workshops on the politics of time and memory in Srebrenica, Bosnia. His research work is at the intersections of politics, media, political economy, technology, and temporality. He has written twelve books that explore these conjunctions, and have been translated into Chinese, Arabic, and Korean. From 2010 until 2022 he was Editor-in-Chief of Time and Society. His next book, due to be published in2024, is about modern (analog) journalism in a post-modern (digital) world.