Saturday, August 30, 2008

Analog and digital religions

Are you saved?

In the Christian tradition, the answer is binary: either you are, or you aren’t. Even if you’re not sure, God has decided. You’re either going to heaven or hell, with a side trip through purgatory for some denominations.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33)
There are other traditions where salvation is an “analog” process. The release from suffering comes about gradually through hard work.
Just as when a carpenter or carpenter's apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze but does not know, “Today my adze handle wore down this much, or yesterday it wore down that much, or the day before yesterday it wore down this much,” still he knows it is worn through when it is worn through. (Samyutta Nikaya 22.101)
Our physical existence is analog: things wear down gradually, like the handle of an adze over years of use. (In case you also don’t remember what an adze is: it’s a tool used for smoothing rough-cut wood in hand woodworking.) On the other hand, technology is increasingly digital: something either works perfectly, or not at all. [*] The reception of analog TV will gradually get worse as one moves further and further away from a transmission tower, but digital TV quality falls off a cliff at a certain distance. It’s perfect, and then suddenly the screen is black.

It’s curious that we’ve taken so easily to binary, digital technologies given that we evolved in a physical reality that is analog and continuous. I suspect it’s because our minds categorize: someone is either male or female, friend or foe, sheep or a goat; the fruit is on the tree, in the basket, or on the ground. The classifying knack makes intelligible binary outcomes both in the spiritual life and modern technology though one may also have a gradualist religion, or a liking for vinyl records.

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* As always, yes, there are exceptions that prove the rule. PC performance can degrade gradually as a disk gets fragmented or an application accumulates memory leaks; glass and ceramic will fracture catastrophically.

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