Jason Puskar, "The Switch: An Off and On History of Digital Humans" (U Minnesota Press, 2023)


From the telegraph to the touchscreen, how the development of binary switching transformed everyday life and changed the shape of human agency.

The Switch: An Off and On History of Digital Humans (U Minnesota Press, 2023) traces the sudden rise of a technology that has transformed everyday life for billions of people: the binary switch. By chronicling the rapid growth of binary switching since the mid-nineteenth century, Jason Puskar contends that there is no human activity as common today as pushing a button or flipping a switch--the deceptively simple act of turning something on or off. More than a technical history, The Switch offers a cultural and political analysis of how reducing so much human action to binary alternatives has profoundly reshaped modern society.

Analyzing this history, Puskar charts the rapid shift from analog to digital across a range of devices--keyboards, cameras, guns, light switches, computers, game controls, even the "nuclear button"--to understand how nineteenth-century techniques continue to influence today's pervasive digital technologies. In contexts that include musical performance, finger counting, machine writing, voting methods, and immersive play, Puskar shows how the switch to switching led to radically new forms of action and thought.

The innovative analysis in The Switch makes clear that binary inputs have altered human agency by making choice instantaneous, effort minimal, and effects more far-reaching than ever. In the process, it concludes, switching also fosters forms of individualism that, though empowering for many, also preserve a legacy of inequality and even domination.

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Nathan Moore

Nathan Moore's NBN podcasts are dedicated to History, Literature, and Writing.

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