Analog Thinking in a Digital Age

Lately I've become aware of a fundamental difference in how I learned to think and how my own children, ages 17 and 21, make sense of the world, and the irony encompassed in the difference is not lost on me. You see, I grew up towards the end of the analog era, but I learned to understand the world in a digital way; my children, on the other hand, are all digital, but their sensibilities are completely analog. What do I mean by this?

As anyone the least bit familiar with computer architecture knows, everything we do, whether on our laptops, our smartphones or our tablets ultimately relies on a simple 0-1 dichotomy; those semiconductors are either on or off, and it's the multitudinous combination of yeses and nos, ons and offs, that allows for things like Pokemon Go, Excel spreadsheets, YouTube videos and everything else. What's fascinating is that in that relatively new context of dichotomous worlds, my children learned to see things in non-black/white continua, while I, who grew up with clocks with moving hands and radio tuners with knobs that moved in a continuous flow, learned to see the world in simple dichotomies.

I remember perhaps 10 years ago when my son was sitting around the kitchen table with several of his friends and they were all conversing. The topic was race. Now I should first say that it is very unlikely that I would have ever had a conversation about race with my friends at the age of 11, but more than this, what struck me as I listened to them talk from a dispassionate distance was how they spoke about "skin tone." What a concept. I had been raised understanding that people were black or they were white. In the late sixties and early seventies, Latino culture hardly had any prominence in white suburban Boston, but the Black White dichotomy was omnipresent. Recall that Boston went through a huge trauma as the city schools were integrated under court order. And here were my son and his friends talking about skin tone. Like ethnicity existed along a continuum, and people could locate themselves along that continuum wherever they felt comfortable.

And now not only do we see that phenomenon applied to ethnicity, but also to gender. When I grew up we hardly spoke of gender. We understood that a person was either male or female, and really that was a reflection of or determined by one's personal plumbing. Yes, scholars like Judith Butler were out there arguing for the social construction of gender, but that was something for the Academy, not for us plain folk who wanted the simplistic notion of a dichotomous world.

Well, it turns out Judy Butler was right; she was just a bit ahead of her time, but the times have caught up, and now more and more we understand that the world isn't a black and white place, but is rather a reflection of the countless shades of grey in between. I think perhaps those who are now responding to the fear-mongering of Donald Trump are more than anything feeling scared and lost as we come to understand that the fundamental nature of our social existence is analog, not digital. It's complex, not simple. It's multifaceted, not dichotomous.

That brings me at long last to this week's Torah portion, Pinchas. Many different themes emerge in Pinchas, but the one on which I'll focus quite briefly is the census that is taken near it's beginning. Typically a boring, mundane topic -- census-taking -- but what's interesting here is the contrast of the results of this census with the one taken forty years earlier at the base of Mt. Sinai. Now, as the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land, we learn that of all those 600,000 plus people who had been counted earlier on, only two have survived, Joshua and Caleb. We could say a lot about why these two, but instead, let's just focus on the fact that all those people who had grown up in the culture of slavery in Egypt had to die off before the people could truly be ready for a better way of living.

Fast forward to today. I wonder if it is now the case that before we as a species can be ready for our entry into "The Promised Land," those of us (which is to say, most of us from an older generation - I'm 55) will have to die off and leave the world to the analog thinkers who were born in the digital age. I'd like to believe that we older folk could find a way truly to change how we think, how we experience the world and make sense of it, but I'm not so sure that's possible. I just hope we don't screw things up so massively that the world we leave to the new thinkers isn't too far gone. In the meantime, we need to do all we can to resist those who would take us back to the simple dichotomies that allow for racism, discrimination based on gender identity, viewing Mother Earth as an exploitable resource from which we can extract anything we wish with total disregard for non-human life. I think you know who I'm talking about. Shabbat Shalom.