Is the imagination analog or digital?

After nearly 10 years Nerve Theory aka Bernhard Loibner & Tom Sherman have created a new radio piece titled “Is the imagination analog or digital?”. The new 20 minute long piece was produced for Kunstradio-Radiokunst, the Austrian public radio’s OE1 weekly show dedicated to radio art. It was premiered there in the program of March 19, 2017.

Sherman & Loibner have been collaborating with their mix of voice, sound & video under the moniker of Nerve Theory since 1998, creating radio pieces, audio recordings and audio-visual live performances.

“Is the imagination analog or digital?” once again features Tom Sherman’s voice reading his text and Bernhard Loibner contextualizing it into an environment of music and sound. With this new piece the artists wonder if we imagine ourselves to be analog or digital creatures. 

Is the imagination analog or digital?

Tom Sherman

Is the imagination analog or digital? Clearly we are analog creatures, meat animals and not machines. We are certainly not digital organisms. Our brains house our minds and our imaginations are inconceivably free manifestations of our foot-loose intelligence. We can go anywhere we want, anytime, without our bodies. The brain is a transmitter of the imagination, but although an argument can be made that our brain’s synapses are digital switches, the brain in its neural complexity cannot be copied by digital means. The human body, brain, mind and imagination cannot be rendered in digital code. This doesn’t keep us from trying.

The digital encoding of analog signals emerged in the late 20th Century as a way to reduce noise in the replication of the analog emanations of our bodies. The key advantages of digital encoding are accuracy of reproduction and the seemingly unlimited potential for the manipulation of digital data. All digital versions of analog realities are simulations, facades, virtual stand-ins for analog emanations. There are purely digital phenomena, but these digital realities are closer to minerals and rocks than they are to living things.

It is too costly time wise and otherwise to do things analog anymore. Some think it is anachronistic, nostalgic and idiotic to try. There is nothing the body and mind does today that cannot be replicated in a digital simulacrum, in a net of binary code. If you believe this you are not a spiritualist. Surely there are connections the human body and mind makes with other bodies or minds, whether kindred species or other entities that cannot be quantified, measured and simulated. Those who believe human kind exists somewhere underneath or beyond the straightjacket of electro-mechanical imprisonment are romantic delusionists.

Let’s face it, binary code just scratches the surface in terms of the replication of all things human. The digital is a net of ones and zeros that merely dots the surface of our bodies and the puffy clouds of our minds the way constellations of the brightest stars detail a night sky of infinite complexity, a universe far exceeding the human mind in magnitude. It is hard to explain the fascination and preoccupations with modest digital simulations. Our environments are littered with incomplete digital formulations, replications of our body parts or fragments of thoughts–like this spoken text, a digital simulation of my thinking looking for a analog creature, a listener in English, to inhabit for a moment or two.

The question is how well is your analog reality served by digital translation and replication. There are two worlds, analog and digital. The interface is not a screen on a wireless device. The interface is where the body’s sensorium and consciousness finds itself restricted by the compromises necessary to function digitally. There is a friction between the envelope of the human animal and the glove-like fit of the digital surround. This digital border tingles with resistance-based heat as analog emanations and impulses cross into code in a variety of everyday automated conversions. Other conversions are inanely manual, where we are given the choice to reduce our sensualities and sensitivities into fragments of text, emoticons, and looping video gestures.

Analog is akin to water, where digital is atmospheric and similar to static electricity in the air. The digital builds up in tiny atomistic events until a sheet of flashing light discharges the tension and resets the whole environment. The digital crosses the divide in an instant, if a path is available. Analog, meanwhile, sloshes around wet and cool in concentric circles, in materialized echoes, every connection a continuum. Analog instruments are vessels. They have to be sealed to prevent leaking. Analog signals overflow and flood circuits as a matter of course. Stability is a relative concept as depth creates pressure and there is always movement on the surface. Analog wetness can be contained if a little mess can be tolerated. Digital dryness has its own rigid structure until it reaches a climax and then snaps. This tendency to level its topology in a sudden collapse is a prime characteristic of digital.

Digital culture is composed of still and moving images and sounds, statistics, raw data and metadata and text, reams and reams of alphanumeric text. Text, the written word, typed out by fingers and thumbs crosses screens, tying fragments of images down, graphically integrating disparate elements, sometimes appearing as subtitles, other times claiming the foreground in bold white or brightly coloured fonts. Leading the eye, commanding the meaning of the image, expanding the way pictures talk because underneath every text is a voice and when we read there is a faint whisper of the author in the back of our throats. Texts in world Englishes appear and disappear, fading in and out and rolling in from the periphery and up and out of the frame. Text is mostly where the image is read for us, to us, in a straight line as important as the horizon of a great lake or an ocean. The text is where the water meets the sky, the psychological meridian between the writer and the reader

The simulation of analog liquidity in digital dryness is more satisfying for bankers than it is for bakers. After all, computers were implemented originally to count, not to govern or to complement chemistry. Nuance is best left to the senses and the sensitive, and not to the bean counters. Numbers can be stacked in piles and if they are neat and squeaky-clean they can be very impressive. Bright and shiny displays will go a long way toward convincing people that simulations are better than the real thing. Displays today are backlit and refreshed so quickly the transitions are imperceptible. Blur-less-ness is unreal, but people like it. We all appreciate a machine-like performance. Speed is always powerful and intoxicating. Those who feel inadequate as analog creatures especially appreciate demonstrations of speed and precision that exceed human performance.

The analog creature that questions and is troubled by the validity given to a digital universe ultimately has only one recourse. He or she has to swallow all that is digital in a single gulp. The analog mouth needs to open wide into a gaping cavernous hole and draw in and swallow the digital environment at the moment it fills the mouth and hits the back of the throat, with the teeth clamping shut and terminating the immediate environment at the perpetual moment of consciousness. The digital, for all impractical purposes, will cease to exist beyond this moment of total ingestion. The digital domain can be annihilated in a single gulp. It may be hard to keep down and hard to digest, but it can be eliminated as an irritant–as an erroneous sidetrack and ultimate distraction of a species obsessed with counting and illusions built through numbers. It can be eaten alive without remorse because it is not a living thing. Just open wide, draw it in and gulp down the façade. Poof, it is gone, somewhere inside, beneath the light of day, in the wet darkness of our gut.