Digital is an adjective. What’s the noun?

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.


  1. Thanks so much for your thoughts on this Ed – both on “digital” and on “content” in your earlier post. I am also tripping over these terms, finding them lacking, perhaps masking something else…. And both of these terms are in my title, which is making me feel a bit…undefined.

    I do think that, increasingly, there is no ‘digital’ at all. As you say here, digital is never exclusively digital. Just because we work in the digital realm, doesn’t mean we don’t also work in the analog realm. For me, it means that I tend to lean towards solving problems using digital tools, and also that I find it easier than others to see how a digital solution will work. I have definitely felt a lack of clarity about my role in the institution most of my career–I am now wondering if this is (partially) connected to the amorphousness of these inadequate terms??


    1. Thanks, Susan.

      Hugh Wallace (@tumshie) said something similar on Twitter “Digital has eaten itself.”

      And in keeping with the faerie realm image, it’s easy to see Digital as a serpent that is devouring its own tail. The more we try to find the end, the more we go round in circles.


  2. I love the idea of the digital realm being the new Faerieland. (Of course, you know I would.) I feel like that would make for such a good design underpinning for highly experiential exhibits ala Strandbeest and its ilk. (I may also be borrowing that idea for a story, fair warning. 🙂 )


  3. omg, I had crafted such a lengthy, cogent response to this post, but my browser lost it!
    Shorter version: “Digital Technology” is just more “sophisticated tools,” which we’ve been developing since we had thumbs (digits!). Since tools are applied to almost every aspect of human endeavor, it’s better to have a conversation about a specific endeavor, and all the physical, informational, human, and institutional considerations involved.

    The one thing “Digital(n)” might mean is the idea that the common interface of 1s and 0s means we can explore connections between domains of experience in ways that we couldn’t before. But, since the implications of that fact are felt differently in different domains, it’s again better to be more specific and domain-oriented.

    But mostly when I see “Digital(n)” in writing, it’s as a Bogeyman, or Magical Thiinking.

    Fun game: replace “Digital” or “technology” with “tools” and see how a piece reads.

    btw – I am 100% guilty of everything I rant about above. I blame Digital Technology for that, but my hope is that Digital Technology can fix me.


  4. Love the image of the serpent eating its tail! This is perfect.

    This symbolism is rich:
    “This symbolizes the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal….In Gnosticism and alchemy representing cyclical natural life and the fusion of opposites. It also symbolizes the transcendence of duality…”


  5. This will be slightly off topic, but I’ve had several conversations recently where the point has been made that things like the word ‘art’ have taken on a specific sort of life based on the form of speech it gets used as. We think of ‘art’ as mostly objects or events of some sort because we seem more familiar with using it as a noun. What we miss out on are the uses of ‘art’ which frame things as a doing of things. If we consider ‘art’ as some form of verb then we get to focus on how important and ephemeral the act of creation itself can be. It seems artists themselves have to deal with this difference in grammar if the point of what they are doing is not just the product, the object at the end, but also the practice, the performance, and the active engagement with the media. The act of creation itself can be thought of as art, not just the things created, and that seems important enough not to lose sight of.

    So perhaps there is some other way of looking at ‘digital’ as less of an adjectival attribute and more adverbial? Perhaps seeing it as contrasted with ‘analog’ only frames it more securely as an adjective describing information packaging and some other contrast is more worth noticing? As Don suggested in his comment, the word ‘digital’ can also be traced back to the vaunted Homo Sapien attribute of opposable thumb use and technological innovation. Perhaps we need to understand a broader context of the ‘digital’?

    Starting to ramble, but the overall point I’m making is that words themselves do not describe the world, its how we use them that unpacks the noticeable differences and shines light in the corners. As Wittgenstein said, words are like tools, and we learn them and the world together. What we learn is the way our language works, so how words are used matters. In as much as they are a part of a way of life they are embedded in practice. They are not agnostic because they are not things that have meaning outside the context they can be used in. (Really starting to ramble now!)


  6. ik this is old but digital refers to digits in a numerical sense, so digital means “pertaining to numbers.” In this case, referencing that computers rely solely on numbers on an abstract level.

    Heres a cool detail tho:
    digital once meant “relating to fingers,” since “digit” means “finger.” The word “digit” in a numerical sense developed from the sense of finger, and the older meaning of the word “digital” did, too.
    However, the modern meaning for “digital” came from the number-related “digit.”
    In summary, number “digital” evolved somewaht seperately from finger “digital,” rather than coming from it. That’s kinda cool.


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