Analogue Natives in Digital Cockpits
When we try to draw a line at the limits of our comfort with technology, we make a statement about what we think is too much technology. My favorite example is the bicycle. As much as I love computers and stereos, the analog interface of the bicycle is the perfect amount of technology to me. The difference in realms of these contrivances-- analog/digital, muscular/mental--may have more to do with our comfort than we think.
"Mind didn't actually emerge from matter, but from constraints on matter."
– Charles Mudede, August 2012
"I like simple instruments," Brian Eno told Deirdre O'Donaghue of KCRW in 1985. "I always have. I've always used very simple synthesizers actually, and I prefer them because I don't particularly care to be faced with limitless possibilities. I prefer a slightly more constrained situation."
In a 1999 article for WIRED called "Revenge of the Intuitive," Eno expands the idea, pointing out that a proliferation of options on a new device reduces the intimacy one can have with it. He's writing specifically about recording technology, but the concept applies far more broadly. You can't get facile with a tool if its use keeps changing. You can't have a relationship with something if it keeps becoming something else.
Also insightful is his observation that our devices seem to be shifting our creative practices and activities from one realm to another. "Studios opened up possibilities," he writes. "But now I'm struck by the insidious computer-driven tendency to take things out of the domain of muscular activity and put them into the domain of mental activity. This transfer is not paying off." Think about the flat rectangle of your smartphone. Its affordances take little advantage of the dexterity of human hands and fingers. Its interface relies almost solely on our mental abilities. The screen on your smartphone might do anything. Joysticks, keyboards, steering wheels, gearshifts, handlebars, brake levers, even older cellular phones, all take advantage of what hands and fingers can do. They all do fewer things, but they do each of them better.
The consoles above are from the 1961 Apollo program, the 1981 Space Shuttle, and SpaceX's 2021 Dragon2, and the ones below are from a recent car dashboard and a Tesla Model 3. Screens have swallowed up the interactive aspects of almost everything. A lot of the labor of using digital interfaces is cognitive. Sure, you have to remember that turning the wheel to the left causes the car to veer left, but it also physically shows you. The mapping of these functions requires more and more of our brains than our bodies.
“Digital documents… have no edges,” writes Lisa Gitelman in her book, Paper Knowledge. A “document” in digital space is only metaphorically so. Every form of media is the same at the digital level. Digital documents are arranged in recognizable analog forms on the screen. The underlying mechanisms doing the arranging remain largely hidden from us as users, what Alex Galloway calls “the interface effect.” It’s kind of like using genre as a way to parse massive amounts of text, as a different way to organize and understand writing.
The body is the original site of all of our media. "The body is the most basic of all media," writes John Durham Peters in his book, The Marvelous Clouds, "and the richest with meaning, but its meanings are not principally those of language or signs [...]." It's up to the mind to make meaning of language and signs. So, when the gestural cues of buttons and levers become the symbolic cues of images and touchscreens, interfaces are shifting from the muscular to the mental.
The bicycle is an open system. Unlike the black box of the smartphone or computer, it invites tinkering and wear. Also unlike the flat rectangle of the smartphone, its affordances and limitations are visible. Its interface is attuned to the human body, adjustable to multiple uses and terrains and every rider's size and skills, and the labor involved in operating it is mostly muscular.
The bicycle is not a spacecraft or a smartphone, but its assemblage of grips and levers and pedals is a nice example of the affordances of a body-based, human-centric, analog interface. Its constraints are also its strengths. Like Eno's limited synthesizer interfaces, we love bicycles because we know what to expect from them.
The Medium Picture
The above bit is more from my book-in-progress, The Medium Picture. The analog to digital shift of our media is another of the major transitions we are living through. The Medium Picture documents this shift and its ramifications.
Thanks for reading,