One of the issues I have with “digital” is that it’s an adjective. When I hear “digital”, I expect something to come after it. Digital media, digital humanities, digital assets – all these make sense to me because the modifier works to clarify what you’re referring to. Talking about digital as a noun phrase may seem helpful, but I am beginning to feel more and more that we do ourselves a disservice by failing to define the thing it’s supposed to be modifying. Talking about “Digital” or “the Digital” is just backing away from defining it. I don’t know what the best way to fill in that phrase is, though I’ve been using the “digital realm” when I’m speaking broadly about digital computer technologies.
What would you use?
Another issue I have with “digital” used as a noun phrase is that digital is never exclusively digital (at least until they can jack directly into our brains, and even then it’ll be electrochemical, not electronic). Our experience of it is always mediated though its physical expression; a screen, a sensor, a sound. We talk about it like it has some independent existence divorced of the constraints of ordinary meatspace. The reality is that intreracting with digital information requires meatspace, because that’s where we live. It’s all around us right now, flying through the air, through our bodies, like cosmic rays. All those phone calls, texts, emails, cat videos make their way back and forth all the time, unseen and unknown, until we encounter a device that can let us access the digital realm.
“Realm” has lots of connotations of physicality, geography, and identity that are also useful. In many ways, I wonder whether a better analogy to understand the digital realm would be to think of it as the new “Faerie kingdom”? Like the faerie realm of European folklore, the digital realm lies superimposed on the mundane, physical world. It has entrances and exits all over the landscape that allow entry into a landscape where time flows differently, populated by strange beings, some benign, some not. Some things exist simultaneously in both, and the digital interpenetrates the physical at potentially every location.
I don’t know where this is going, the latent anthropologist in me can’t help but wonder what students of folklore like Sir James Frazer or Robert Graves would’ve made of the digital realm.