Speaking of “Digital”

Various-Screens---02Digital.” (text). A word. (It’s context.) So what do we talk about when we talk about “digital”? Two important attributes: Screen-mediation and binary encoding.


It’s in this sense that I think we most regularly inhabit our notions of “digital.” Maybe more generally, screen-mediation situates texts squarely in the context of computers (in their myriad forms). It’s no secret that computers are becoming more ubiquitous, more convenient, more portable, and more accessible. It’s also important to note that computer screens are getting much easier to read for different types of readers and situations. Both an affordance and limit to screens is their variability in size, shape, resolution, and environment. This is precisely the reason that HTML became such a powerful design language; text-producers no longer were limited to static layouts. Instead, they could employ layout and design principles performances, depending on the device mediating the user’s experience. And limits, you ask? The mere mention of page numbers and MLA documentation should call forth a vast array of problems readers and writers have encountered when authors and screens aren’t on the same… well… page. (Ouch!) These discussions multiply and intersect as texts continue to include more moving images, sounds, and other forms of data.


This attribute is the one that gets me really excited. This omnipresent language of ones and zeros defines and enacts every single digital text we encounter. Two letters. Infinite possibilities. Powerful. But too simple to be interesting? I mean what more can you say, what more needs to be said, once the discussion reaches this level? Plenty. For instance, it’s this binary nature at the heart of digital texts which gives them a radically different type of:

Portability. I can carry around more than a thousand PDFs on a thumb drive. Small and inexpensive. I can visit the library archives of millions of digital journal articles… from laptop… on a bus between Louisville and Nashville. I used to think telephone wires were the bomb. Now it’s ethernet, wifi, and 3G. All traveling binary patterns.

Speed. This one’s easy. Letters take days or weeks. Emails take milliseconds. You’ve heard it before.

Reproducibility. Now it’s page views, not copies, right? Did it make any sense 20 years ago to buy a license for a song? Nope. You owned a copy. Even if the tape melted on your dash, that’s the one you owned.

Durability. This one’s tricky. But you can open a file a thousand times without any loss of data. If you do it right. Think back-up copies. Think “undo.”

Convergence. Wanna watch a movie? Web page. Phone. iPod. Television. Oh yeah, and the movie theater.

Multimodality. Think Flash files. Music. Photos. Voice. Video. Text. Dialogue boxes. Dynamic content. All those elements play on the same plane: ones and zeros.

Performance. This one’s pretty cool. Do you know what your screen’s refresh rate is? Do you know why it matters? It’s the speed at which your computer redraws your entire screen each second. That means you’re seeing a new image every 1/60 of a second. Your computer constructs that image constantly. N. Katherine Hayles’s “flickering signifiers” are partly related to this little known fact about screen images. In other words each image is a constantly performed construction.

Instability. And here’s the flip-side of the durability discussion. Although texts don’t degrade in the same way that paper texts do, they do change. Texts are performances. Enacted by technologies. Which emerge/change/improve/obsolesce. Which makes it difficult to ever genuinely reproduce the same text twice. Which contradicts my claims about texts’ performativity. I know. How annoying is that?

So THIS is my genealogy of “digital”?

Not by a long shot. Genealogy is different from a traditional history or archeology in that it’s not linear or layered. It’s model of scholarship based on tracing the roots of a concept back through multiple discrete, and often discontinuous, historical-cultural threads. Those threads, having their own momentum and bearing, intersect to form the kairos under analysis. In this case, current cultural/academic attitudes about and perceptions of digital texts.

That means I’m hoping to trace the development and importance of each of the attributes mentioned above individually, and in conversation with other histories, in future posts.

(Next Post in this Thread: A more detailed model for understanding digital signification.)

(image: “Transparent Screen 4,” original by AMagill. remixed by ryan trauman. creative commons license: attribution 2.0 generic)