Analog and digital times

In the new translation of the Book of Knowledge into a two-bit language, only the gaps make sense.1

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City (2019) by Anna Sherman:

Jesuit missionaries brought the first clocks to Japan; they were objects of wonder. Unlike temple bells, which sounded at intervals, the new clocks registered permanent time. The ceaseless and visible movement of the clocks’ hands was something altogether new. The idea of time itself changed… (69, emphasis in the original)

Mechanical clocks introduced a new analog sense of time that had previously everywhere, not only in Japan, been digital.  Before their introduction, time had never been without basic spatial and temporal intervals2 — and basic intervals define the digital in distinction from the analog.

Digitality seems to introduce unheard of uniformity — “two-bit” in the negative sense. But its “two-bit” basis brings with it the possibility of relating to the past in a way that does not require either one of the sides of the past/present divide to be privileged against the other.3 Further, the complicated times before mechanical clocks can only then be appreciated when they are understood as incorporating their own complex styles of intelligence — styles of intelligence that today are emerging even in the hard sciences like quantum physics, or particularly there, as capable of yielding more precise insight than analog uniformity (aka, the same ones in series).

McLuhan to Willem Oltmans in a 1974 interview ‘On Growth’:

literate man is a one-way character incapable of two-way dialogue with any other kind of culture.

The last lines of Sherman’s book (225) are:

Nothing ever rests.
Light and Shade.

It should not be thought that Sherman ends by saluting the reign of horizontal analog time. Instead, the well known restlessness of time (“nothing ever rests” — including restlessness) must be appreciated in its fundamentally divided complexity. The digital nature of time must be seen as a vertical or synchronic drive to expression as well as extinction that characterizes all things, like light and shade.4 Here is Anaximander in Nietzsche’s translation:

Woher die Dinge ihre Entstehung haben, dahin müssen sie auch zu Grunde gehen, nach der Notwendigkeit; denn sie müssen Buße zahlen und für ihre Ungerechtigkeiten gerichtet werden, gemäß der Ordnung der Zeit.5

Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.

In the middle of her book (81), Sherman cites from the Avatamsaka Sutra:

Sudhana said, ‘Where has that magnificent display gone?’
Matreya said, ‘Where it came from.’6  


  1. See note 3 below.
  2. Spatial intervals: differences in time from place to place; temporal intervals: differences within time at any one place. Even with mechanical clocks these spatial and temporal intervals would not be overcome until uniform time was required by the railroads in the nineteenth century. And even then, communities that were isolated in some way would not easily be ‘integrated’ into what was termed the world economy.
  3. McLuhan began speaking and writing about “two-bits” in the last decade of his life: “Two bits, of course, has taken on a new meaning in the computer age.  It’s a two bit operation — programming a computer; it’s done by yes-no bits. I think when one begins to speak to any group at all he is somewhat in the position of a stripper, who must ‘put on’ her audience by taking off her clothes. This, of course, is an operation that could be reversed. You could come out nude and start dressing…” (‘Hardware/Software Mergers’, 1969); “Computer specialists go all out to reduce every human problem to yes or no questions demanding yes or no answers. In the new translation of the Book of Knowledge into a two-bit language, only the gaps make sense” (Take Today, 1972, 130).
  4. Exactly because time is itself fundamentally divided, and because extinction is as essential to it as expression, time is always also analog!
  5. Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen, 1873.
  6. The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary.