What Does “Digital” Mean?

The OED defines “digital” in five key ways, but the key definition that interests us here is as follows:

Digital technology; digital media, as digital television, digital audio, etc.

Basically, nearly everything these days is digital. Even if it ends up in analogue form like AM or FM radio, it almost certainly originates digitally.

Text is written on computers and stored digitally; audio is recorded into digital recorders and stored as a series of ones and zeroes; nearly all television and film is recorded using digital cameras.

So it’s curious that today the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has felt the need to rebrand itself as the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

We’re told:

“The department has taken on significant new responsibilities in recent years, so that half of its policy and delivery work now covers the digital sectors – telecommunications, data protection, internet safety, cyber skills and parts of media and the creative industries.”

So it has decided to add the word “Digital” to its logo. It has also decided that instead of becoming DDCMS, it will remain DCMS. So that makes life simpler then. Not that it saves on stationery reprinting costs as the logo is changing.

It’s clearly arrant nonsense that because things like telecommunications and data protection fall under its wing, that it needed to add the word “digital.”

Everything is already digital!

Other things that DCMS oversees include gambling, the National Lottery, architecture, tourism and charities. Are any of them reflected in the department’s name?

“Digital” is simply an adjective, and an often superfluous one, that describes how the world works. Using it as a noun is actually confusing, because depending on where you come from, digital means different things to different people.

  • Talk to radio people, and digital might mean DAB, or it might mean streaming.
  • Talk to TV people, and digital probably means streaming, but could mean a broadcast platform (all of which are digital), or perhaps it might be related to workflow.
  • Talk to advertising people, and it means advertising on websites and in apps. Unless you’re talking to outdoor advertising people in which case it means those big advertising screens, or cinema people who use it to describe their ad delivery mechanism, and so on.
  • Talk to publishing people and it probably means anything that is not printed on paper.
  • Talk to creative people and it’s largely meaningless because nearly everything they do is already digital.
  • Talk to telecommunications people and they’ll probably stare blankly at you and ask you to be a bit more specific.
  • Talk to architectural people and they’ll explain that they’ve been using CAD and 3D software amongst others for years now.
  • Talk to the public and they’ll want you to explain precisely what you mean.

What one organisation means by “digital” is very different to what another means by it.

Because nearly everything is digital, the word has become largely meaningless. And that means it can actually be more confusing to refer to it.

Think about how much of health or education is digital. When there’s a virulent virus or worm that can bring down hospitals’ computers, is that an issue for DCMS, or is it really a matter for the Home Office, Department of Health or the MoD? Or all of them?

Digital has morphed from being a word that made everyone think of the future and define broader changes in society, and become an almost meaningless word that requires some kind of qualifier to allow someone to understand the context of its use.

And all of this is before you get to the missing comma in their new logo…