Sunday, 20 July 2014

What is digital?

Yesterday I joined in a discussion on Twitter about "what is digital" and then read the piece that provoked it. Usually you'd do this the other way round, but conversations online don't always follow a linear pattern. That's my excuse anyway and I'm sticking to it.

The piece was called Defining Digital by Matt Jukes.

It's an excellent summary of the problems one faces when trying to define what "digital" actually means. It got me thinking about how I define it and I was with Matt all the way to his statement:

Digital is a belief in the ability of the internet to transform…whether that be society, businesses, education, government or whatever…and the understanding of how that might be achieved.

For me, digital doesn't mean online or relating to the internet. If you're using digital to mean online, just say online. Matt's research shows that it's a far more prevalent term which means users stand a greater chance of understanding it.

The word digital has been around for years and I probably first encountered it when Compact Discs were released in 1982. It was either that or from a friend of my dad who had a digital watch. The red LEDs consumed so much power lighting up the display that you had to hold down a button to see the time.

I'm going to stop reminiscing about tech or I'll end up getting the snaps of my 1986 family holiday to Falmouth out (there's some great pictures of Goonhilly Earth Station), but the point is, the digital media and device I used as examples above have nothing to do with the internet and pre-date the World Wide Web by 10ish years.

So "digital" wasn't synonymous with being online when it first came to prominence, but is it now? 

If you listen to BBC Radio Five Live their station indent says "On digital, online, on smartphone, on tablet". I'm assuming they mean digital radio when they say digital, as they've interfered it's something different from being online. This ambiguous use of "digital" says to me that those in radio think it means something quite different to Matt's definition above and perhaps different sectors (ie government) and those working for it (ie me) might use the term questionably too, to denote something that it isn't.

So based on the above, how would I re-define my understanding of what "digital" is?

Back in 2012, I asked what is Twitter. In summary, I proposed Twitter isn't a platform for sharing ideas, promoting your organisation or getting your message out to the world, that's just stuff you can do with it. I see Twitter as the world's most used open database for storing small pieces of information.

Now, apply this to digital. "Digital" isn't the internet or being online, those are things that use digital technology. "Digital" isn't transformation, that's what you're able to do with it.

Here's what I think digital is: 

An application, service, process or device that uses binary technology, and is often considered superior to any analogue counterpart.

Can you think of something that doesn't fall into this category that's "digital"? It covers CDs, digital radio,  channel shift, mobile phones, social media, and digital watches. For me, this is what digital is.


This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.