Tara McPherson, “Digital”

McPherson argues that “digital” and “computation” are often used synonymously today, and though they are similar concepts, they are not identical. The term “digital” has not just arisen along with modern, “digital” technologies; it dates back to the B.C. Era. We must more accurately understand these technologies today by studying the context of “digital,” in part by studying how analog systems have influenced contemporary media.

First, McPherson questions what “digital” actually means, both now and in past millennia. Originally the term referred to fingers, toes, or singular whole numbers. Today the meaning is similar at its basic understanding; McPherson writes that “digital” refers to “discrete elements or to separate numbers.” Additionally, modern computers work under this concept of digital, but they did not always. McPherson argues that “digital” and “computation” are not exactly the same because computers used to work analogically, not digitally. In the mid-twentieth century, computation involved a continuous system instead of a numerical, (discontinuous? see my confusion below) system. This is important to know first before framing the concept within culture today. McPherson points to the language we use: “we are living through a ‘digital revolution,’ are at risk of an increasing ‘digital divide,’…” Prior to critiquing this language, we have to ask what “digital” actually is. She does so by studying the differences between analog and digital.

McPherson addresses the technological determinism misconception that digital technologies have surpassed analog ones because they are more efficient and stronger, and that the development of digital media has progressed linearly. McPherson argues that this assumption ignores the all-important context surrounding digital media: “These teleological schemes can make it hard to understand the many cultural, economic, and historical forces that are in play during any period of technological change.” She acknowledges the advantages digital machines have over analog ones, but this does not mean that digital machines have solely determined cultural change. Analog systems have influenced this change.

To better understand this misconception, McPherson traces the history of “digital,” primarily within the last century. Following World War II and through changing discussions on race, computers focused more on digital rather than analog systems. Digital systems enabled clear and quick computing instead of widespread, sensory, and infinite analog results. However, characteristics of analog machines are still present in our otherwise digital media: “We must remember that the digital is embedded in an analog world even as it increasingly shapes what is possible within that world.” Here McPherson returns to her argument about the contextual importance of what “digital” actually means. It does not have one interpretation, one use, or one period of modern time in which it developed. It has been developing since ancient times.

I’m a little confused with the difference between analog and digital computers. I think it is because I got lost in the computer lingo—it gets in the way of understanding what “digital” really represents in our culture. However, I suppose the most important concept to understand here is what each represents: “The digital privileges the discrete and the modular; the analog represents continuity.” Using these types of computation in the past has led to today’s use of mainly digital technologies.

Additionally, McPherson ties the advancement of digital computing beyond analog computing to the post-World War II era and race politics. She connects digital computing and its “tight feedback loops” to post-WWII policy, as well as the mid-twentieth century discussions of racism and “covert modes of racial formation.” Not totally seeing the connection here. Did digital computation make it easier to run a society just coming out of war, or one with increasing racial divides? Somewhere in here is an explanation of how mainly digital technologies have developed as the standard of technologies today (or at least we call them digital technologies, instead of analog ones).

What, then, does this all mean in the way we understand our present media? Our tablets/iPads, our phones, our computers—McPherson argues that they have all shaped by the development of digital (and its contexts) for millennia. How do we project this understanding onto our printed media, and then trace it through to our digital media and back again? I think McPherson’s last sentence helps us at least to find more meaning in the technologies we use so often: “By examining how these histories came to be, we will better understand and, perhaps, shape our present.”