Monday, May 25, 2009

Digital and Analog Thinking

In blog comments, and in live discussions, I have noticed at times that some people seem to completely miss what I say. They respond to things I never uttered and seem to assign motives and feelings of which I have given no indication. I used to think this was just the rude and/or dim-witted behavior of someone who could not see past their own opinions, but I have come to think that there is more at play here.

I have an idea that people tend to fall into one of two primary modes of thinking: digital or analog. Digital and analog are two ways of moving electricity. If you think of it in terms of light switches, digital is a typical switch. It has two positions- on or off. Analog is like a dimmer dial; it can be either on or off, but it can also be turned to any level of light or darkness in between.

Whether we tend to be a digital or analog thinker affects how we interpret events. If an event happens that is vague, or has multiple perspectives, the analog person is able to see and understand the various gradients in the situation. However, the digital person must push the event to one side or the other. Since there is no in-between for the digital thinker, the distance to either polarity must be accounted for, and this is where distortions begin to form. The more committed the digital person is to a certain position being true, the greater the potential for distortion. If the event is closer to "off", but the digital thinker needs it to be "on", then more distance must be made up, and the perception is further skewed.

This is why I believe some debates can get so heated. If two digitals are discussing an event, and they are on the same side, there is no issue. If two analogs are discussing an event, even the most oppositional views can maintain a civil tone because the two analogs can more accurately perceive and address the other's viewpoint, even when disagreeing.

However, when digital and analog thinkers mix, there is great potential for sparks to fly. The analog thinker becomes frustrated because he feels he is not being heard. The digital thinker is frustrated because he cannot accept or understand any perspective that is not at the pole where he presently resides. Each tries in vain to get the other to see their view. The analog cannot accept the digital person's perspective because they feel it is not a true representation. The digital cannot accept the analog's perspective because that perspective between the poles cannot exist, so the analog must be pushed to the "wrong" side.

I think one of my favorite scenes from MASH can illustrate my point. In this scene, Hawkeye and BJ have drugged an overly aggressive combat Colonel to give him gastritis symptoms. By keeping him out of the fighting for a few days, they hope to save some kids that the colonel is taking into a losing battle. However, when Hawkeye finds out that the Colonel would lose his battalion altogether if he were out of combat for over 2 weeks, he decides to up the ante' and take out the Colonel's appendix.

BJ: What the hell do you think you're doing?

Hawkeye: I'm taking out that guy's appendix in there. Ya gonna get into your whites or what?

BJ: You're talking about removing a healthy organ!

Hawkeye: No, I figure his appendix is about as sick as his mind.

BJ: Doctors aren't supposed to take bodies apart, they're supposed to put them together.

Hawkeye: Why? So guys like that can take them apart again? You heard him, he's gonna take those kids up that hill tomorrow and send them back to us in pieces.

BJ: That man is crazy, but that doesn't make this right. Some things are wrong and they are always wrong!

Hawkeye: Fine, its wrong! But there are going to be a hundred boys still alive tomorrow. Go tell them how wrong it is!

BJ: Dammit! Why don't you just stab him!? Cutting into a healthy body is mutilation!

Hawkeye: Don't give me that! There aren't doctors back home who do unnecessary operations? You've never heard of that?? and for what? for a few bucks!

BJ: Alright, suppose you get him relieved of his command. What about the guy they send to replace him?

Hawkeye: He's gonna be better than this guy, he's gotta be!

BJ: But you don't know that for sure do you!?

Hawkeye: So I'll take them one at a time!! What have I got to lose?!

BJ: Just your self respect, that's all!! You are a doctor of medicine! You cut into a healthy body and you are going to hate yourself for the rest of your life!

Hawkeye: I hate myself right now! I hate me and I hate you and I hate this whole life here! And if I can keep that maniac off the line by a simple appendectomy, then I'll be able to hate myself with a clear conscience!

BJ: Alright! You wanna play God? You do it alone!

Hawkeye: Fine! If you're going to keep talking about it put a mask on! I don't want to run the slightest risk of infecting him.

Later, as Hawkeye enters their tent.

BJ: So?

Hawkeye: It was pink and perfect... and I tossed it on the scrap bucket.

In the above scenario, I lean towards Hawkeye's perspective; but I can still understand and validate BJ's stance. I believe that both men are right. However, to a digital thinker, it is impossible for two opposing views to be right. It has to be one or the other with no movement in between. The opposite view is deemed wrong.

I suspect that digital and analog thinking can be issue specific. The more tied we are to a certain idea, the greater our tendency will be to push views to a certain side. My question at the moment is whether we are wired that way, or is it our choices that lay down these patterns over time?

Or something in-between.....


didymus said...

I seem to know a lot of digital guys.

Overall, I think we all kind of start out "digital", but as we mature many of us take on a more "analog" spectrum. Life can do that.

I read a short book that kinda hits on this issue (it uses different terminology) Link:

Now I got that M*A*S*H soundtrack Suicide is painless running through mind. I'm whistling it as type this. At least it's a good tune.

Sarea said...

I tried to think of something witty to say and completely take you out of context at the same time, but my brain isn't functioning at the moment and I am grasping at straws . . .However, I do believe that this is (like all your blogs) very well written. Someday I look forward to you writing something that I completely disagree with so we could have a thoughtful and reasonable conversation about it (I say that because I LIKE to consider myself an analog thinker . . .for the most part anyway.)

Carry on . . .

Redlefty said...

Splitting people into two types of thinkers... how digital of you!


Steve H. said...

I remember this scene...and it always bothers me as I don't really know what I would do...

Well written piece...and you connected it to MASH. Bonus points there!

Andrew said...

Thomas - I think you attract digital people. ;)

Sarea - You are too kind. I did a piece on spanking a while back that might work as something you disagree with me on. I do not know where you stand on the issue, but I got a fair amount of push back on that one.

Red- LOL.. good catch, I totally did not see that!

Steve - I have been going through the entire MASH series over the past few months. I have an old, battery-less PDA by my bed that I use to stream audio and video while I sleep (I need noise). I am in season 8 at the moment.

When we were young, I just thought Mash was funny, but it is amazing the amount of ethical and societal commentary that was woven into those short episodes. There is another scene that I want to make use of for a blog soon.

Sarea said...

Andy, found the blog you mentioned and left a comment (wasn't sure if you would find it since it was so far back ...)

Anonymous said...

If two opposite statements are both true, everything is true.

Suppose we have a statement that is both true and false. That is, we have X and ~X ("~" is the not operator). Now, suppose that I want to prove Y. Suppose ~Y. Then, we know X and ~X. Contradiction. This implies Y.

Therefore, if you believe Hawkeye and BJ are both true, and they contradict, then I can prove that unicorns exist, or any other silly claim.

Another way of looking at this is to consider a logical system where both X and not X could be simultaneously true. In such a system, even if you could prove something, it would be completely meaningless, because as soon as you prove something, its opposite could be true as well. Such a logical system would be completely useless.

didymus said...

I understand what you're saying, but you're wrong. :)

That's because BJ and Hawkeye aren't expressing to each other 'The Truth', they are expressing their opinions, their points of view. Hawkeye's perspective is based on a kind of cost analysis in human lives, where BJ's is based on a another kinda of moral code for doctors. They each have their reasons for their beliefs, some of those reasons maybe good, others may be better, but none of them are 'The Truth'.

didymus said...

Here is something related to your post I think you'll find interesting:

Anonymous said...


What you are saying is that the statements are not truly contradictory. That is, the characters are merely stating their preference, not what is really the truth.

There is nothing wrong with people having different preferences. There is also nothing wrong with people having a difference of opinion over what is true. However, it is nonsense to claim that two contradictory claims can both be true.

Wumpus said...

Anon, you are a digital thinker. You can't treat that M*A*S*H argument as logic equation. Sure both sides have different view point, and they may contradict each other, but it doesn't mean that they are both wrong.

It all depends on what moral lens you are looking through. An analog thinker is able to look through a variety of lenses and see an issue from different vantage points. A digital thinker can only view the issue through one lens (thus seeing everything in terms of TRUE/FALSE).

Moral issues, though sometimes contradictory, cannot be viewed in terms of Booleans. look up Objectivism.

Andrew said...

Wumpus- Good argument, and extra points for using "Booleans" in a non computer subject! Nice! :)

Anonymous said...

You can talk about Booleans, digital/analog, whatever; but has anyone considered that maybe Hawkeye is wrong, for moonlighting as a military advisor, when he is really a surgeon? Hawkeye might not have even been right to assume that taking the colonel out of action would help the overall picture. Aggressive military commanders, as in the case of Ulysses S. Grant - who was derided as a butcher for the high casualties of his battles - often end wars quicker than generals who may be seen as more restrained. I don't recall exactly the particular episode of MASH that portrayed this story line, so I don’t know all the details that were presented, but since this is a SITCOM we are talking about, it is questionable how true-to-life the aforementioned scenario may be. No doubt, the colonel was portrayed in an oafish and belligerent manner as much as possible, in order to add sympathy and credence to the Hawkeye course of action.

IMO, this discussion could maybe use more focus on the messy details of military strategy, rather than a cozy debate on competing ethical theories. Or maybe the proposed moral dilemma rests on certain assumptions that may not occur in real life. But at any rate, a doctor who did what Hawkeye did is taking things into his own hands, and acting unilaterally. Hmmm... where have we heard that phrase recently?

Orthomentor said...

It has taken me a while to land here, but came upon you by lookling at "analog thinking."

See Maslow's "Theory Z" paper in re this notion. If it strikes a chord, please ping me.

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