Brian Kernighan’s Understanding the Digital World introduced me to the difference between digital and analogue signals. The simplest way to think of the difference is to compare a sequence of binary numbers—0s and 1s—to a fractal entity, like a coastline.
Imagine an arbitrary sequence of binary numbers When graphed, it will look like a jagged line. There’ll be some flat lines—0 to 0, 1 to 1 etc.—but it’ll be predominantly toothy. Now, look closer; every point on that graph will still be either a zero or a one. No matter how close the eye gets.
On a typical map, a stretch of coastline will also look like a jagged line. But increase the precision of measurement. Go from a map of the world, to a map of a continent, to a map of a country, to a map of a region, to a map of a coastal town. Maybe lace up some walking boots, head to the coastal town and walk the shore line. What will you find? Probably something like this: looking closer reveals that there’s more to see. Always.
This is analogue reality. And my ignorance of it has, over the past several years, likely been a cause of suffering.
When I fool around with stories nowadays, I sometimes reproduce their events using a simple visual tool: Vonnegut’s story curves. The only difference is that I’ve added a couple additional values. Instead of Vonnegut’s simple + and -, I have a scale that goes like this:
It is a simplistic device. But it is helpful, too. Taking it back to reality, such a simple conception can also be used to imagine existence. Every moment maps to a corresponding value— + +, +, 0, – or – -. If most people—me included—logged the entirety of their existence using this method, the average result would be a gently undulating curve with a spattering of sharp peaks and deep valleys.
As a rule—let’s skip over the impact of prospect theory—humans are happier and healthier when they make a deliberate effort to focus on the upside of these imaginary logs of existence. Conversely, humans are unhappier and unhealthier when they focus on the lower half of these theoretical logs.
This seemed perfectly reasonable to me, and perfectly sensible, until two days ago. Two days ago, I realised that perhaps humans are always unhappier and always unhealthier when they perceive reality in such digital terms. Using primitive, clunky values like + + or -, like “good” and “bad”, like “sad” and “amazing”, helps—else how could we communicate—but it also harms.
Losing one’s self
The contemplative arts—which teach both inward-focused and outward-focused reasoning—show one how to see analogue reality. Some contemplative arts—meditative traditions like Buddhism, for example—teach one to experience analogue reality, first in strictly controlled settings, and later in larger and larger swathes of everyday life.
This isn’t new, globally. Entire libraries and entire lifetimes have been devoted to the exploration and excavation of reality’s analogue nature. Heck, ceasing to label experience is a lecture in Mindfulness 101. But it’s taken on a new importance for me.
A while back, in The Lord of the Gap, I wrote:
In magnitude, the present is dwarfed by both the past and the future. It is tiny in comparison to the totality of those two great entities. But not in meaning, for the present’s meaning is immense, threefold. The present is, all at once, result, seed and interface:
– The present is the result of everything that occurred in the past.
– The present is the seed for everything that could occur in the future.
– The present is the interface between the immutable past and the possible futures.
The Lord of the Gap recognises this, and to him or her, The Gap manifests as a Gateway that when stepped through leads to a state of transcendence. The Lord of the Gap escapes time and escapes space. The Lord of the Gap inhabits the present, utterly, and so becomes everything that has happened in the past and everything that could happen in the future.
Specifically, what’s new to me is the analogue nature of each and every moment. Which is another way of saying that each and every moment is truly fractal, complex beyond measure, complex regardless of measure. Seeing this is one thing. Living in alignment with that perception is another. Yet the greatest danger of all is losing one’s self. Entering the Gap and never coming out.
For if it is true that a human being cannot persist in a void, it may also be true that a human being cannot persist in the opposite of a void—which is what I think analogue reality at a sufficient level of depth is akin to.