Everything is going digital. Everywhere you look, there are digital things. People use the word “digital” frequently. Right now, I’m on a quest. Questioning other people this week, I’ve asked, “What does digital mean?” Most people just stared at me. A few took a shot at an answer:
“Zeros and one’s, right? Binary code?”
“Anything that deals with computers, I think.”
“When I think of digital, I think of telephones and computers, anything that sends a signal.”
“To be honest, annoying is the first thing that popped into my head.”
“I always thought that it just meant something new.”
I appreciate these responses, but I still don’t know what is meant when people call something digital. There’s little continuity in the colloquial definitions that emerge in conversation with peers. As I suspected, no one really knows what they mean or what they’re referring to when they use the word. In actuality, few care.
There’s a term for this kind of thing:
I’m driven to know about the meaning of digital by a severe suspicion about what free and easy use of the word indicates. I don’t think we should continue to employ a word as loosely as we do digital when we don’t fully understand it. This may seem like a problem of mere semantics. It’s not. It goes deeper than words. It’s a question about how we’re coming to live in a world that we continue to call by a name that we don’t fully grasp. It’s a question of virtues.
In the socially constructed reality that we embody as homo technicus, what we call the machines that we live with is indicative of how we come to understand our values as human beings. To inquire about the meaning of digital is to examine the labeling we’ve developed for packaging knowledge about the way we relate to each other in contemporary society. It’s to inquire about the ways our interactions involve technology and if they are, or aren’t, valuable.
In short, words is important.
See what I mean?
Words are symbols used to communicate and function in the world. Symbols stand for something. Digital is a symbol. I want to know what it stands for, but more poignantly, I want to know how the use of digital—as a naming device—signals a certain way of being in the world, where our actions are based on the values of a socially saturated society and our relation to technology straddles the thin line between virtue and vice, as Sherry Turkle suggests.
Symbols are made out of language. Language is a systematic tool for constructing symbols and expressing subjectivity in an objective way—a technology that we use, in talk and text, to give definition to what we see, think, and do. Through the objectivation of linguistic symbols, we cultivate a sense of agency as our ideas, thoughts, and actions become “things” that we can refer to, possess, change, and value. So understanding what is meant by digital is not just squabbling over words. It takes task with understanding how we live in a world that we continue to suggest is characteristic of a specific, albeit poorly understood, symbol.
Asking people to explain digital was hardly insightful so I go to the library, looking for any book that includes the word digital, scouring for context clues and straightforward definitions. Hours later, I’m sprawled out on the floor between shelves, knee deep in a puddle of scattered books, reading about circuits, channels, and transmissions. Engineering books. Books with digital in the title.
I’m no engineer. I don’t understand the math. But I’ve had enough communication classes to grasp the language, which includes words like signal, circuit, transmission, network, and system. In terms of communication research, these are concepts from a bygone age—an era before the paradigmatic shift to human communication research that privileges the mutual constitution of messages over an information-transmission model. I begin thinking about the ways engineers talk about the digital signal:
Digital signals are limited in flexibility.
Digital signals take less effort to transmit.
Digital signals can be manipulated and stored without much error.
Digital signals are better for performance.
Digital signals involve less noise.
Digital signals are less variable and more easily controlled.
Digital signals are based on a limited set of estimated values.
Thinking harder, I search for ways that this knowledge-set translates to human communication in a digital world. I wonder what “digital”—as a symbol for the way we communicate in a technological society—signals about the way we live:
We are less flexible.
We expend less effort as we communicate.
We can manipulate and remember without much error.
We are better at performance.
We deal with less noise.
We are in more control and put up with less variability.
We base what we do on a limited set of estimated values.
What, then, is meant by digital? Precision is the word that comes to mind. To be digital is to be clear, repeatable, exact.
We have GPS. We travel with more accuracy by giving up our geographical sensitivity, relying on systems that estimate our destinations. We end up forgetting that we can value our journey as much as our arrival. We give up the possibility of getting lost for the guarantee of finding our way. We trade the excitement of risk for the security of reward.
With the Internet, the world is becoming clearer, our ideas are more repeatable, and what we do more exacting. But there is a loss of value inherent in the digital, a sense of certainty ensured in the processing of signals, of life, that disallows discrepancy, variation, and divergence. Who doesn’t like certainity?
Yet, it is the variability we lose in the digital transmission of a signal that devalues living. Descrepency, variation, and risk give a signal a richer set of values. They also make life more robust, vibrant, and fulfilling. Surprise and excitiment are essential elements of a totalized experience of reality. They make our life more interesting, enriched with more possibilities. When precision is favored over everything, we lose a sense of value that we might not be able to recover. We lose our sensitivity to variability and count on limited values, which is another way of saying that we limit our options for what could be considered “true” or “good”.
In the finite province of meaning that engineering language provides, digital means precision. When associated with the way we live in a digital world, life becomes predictable. It describes a world that is less forgiving, where the accuracy of signals relies on a smaller index of values and the “truth” of our lives rests on a limited set of possibilities.
Walking away from the library with a lot of questions and a few books, I’ve got a lucky find in my hands. Wedged in between books about transistors, binary code, and baseband waveforms was Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. It must’ve been misfiled because it’s not an engineering text. Negroponte wrote the book at the beginning of the digital revolution while he was still chairman of the MIT Media Lab (which he founded). It’s dated, for sure, and it’s clear the Negroponte wears rose-colored glasses when he talks about the future (now past) of digital systems, but these words strike me as eerily relevant:
“multimedia narrative includes such specific representations that less and less is left to the mind’s eye. By contrast, the written word sparks images and evokes metaphors that get much of their meaning from the reader’s imagination and experiences” (p. 8)
It’s ironic that no one seems to know what digital means but they continue to use the word. Do they know what they’re getting into? Do they know that being digital might mean less possibility and limited values? Have they considered that trading virtue for virtual could mean narrowing imagination and circumscribing creativity? I doubt it. It seems to me that the more we call the world digital, the more we ought to ask about the cost of precision. I wonder about the values that we forgo, the possibilities lost in the signal, and the remaining “truth” in analogue.