From the telegraph to the touchscreen, how the development of binary switching transformed everyday life and changed the shape of human agency
The Switch 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.
About the Author
Jason Puskar is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He is author of Accident Society: Fiction, Collectivity, and the Production of Chance.
"In this deeply ambitious and sophisticated book, Jason Puskar invites us to think more seriously about what happens almost every time we touch one of our devices and turn it on or swipe or click. From the technologies at our fingertips to the vastly larger networks of politics and language that they operate and represent, The Switch provides a fascinating cultural history of how we have made the modern world, and been remade in turn, by the simplest of human actions and the connections they enable."—Mark Goble, author of Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life
"A dazzling, beautifully written history of a pervasive but seemingly unremarkable technology of modern life: the binary switch. Jason Puskar’s delightful and important book will fascinate historians of media and technology; it should be required reading for anyone curious about how fantasies of liberal agency are cultivated in the buttons, keyboards, triggers, and toys that make us human."—Justus Nieland, author of Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era