What is Digital?

I’ve been working in ‘digital’ in one form or another for over 15 years. Initially it was digital publishing (CD-ROMs), but I soon moved to the ‘Web’. For most of those 15 years, in meetings with people from outside my immediate team, I have been habitually introduced as ‘the digital guy’ despite the fact that in these same meetings no one is ever introduced as ‘the analogue guy’.

But what does digital mean? It’s a word that’s used in such a bewildering variety of contexts that its meaning is now obscure to many. After all isn’t all of our TV and radio digital now?

Defining digital

In an attempt to clarify let’s look at some definitions. According to Wikipedia the word digital is derived from:

“the words digit and digitus (the Latin word for finger), as fingers are often used for discrete counting.”

And a digital technology is one which uses:

“A system of encoding that uses discrete, discontinuous representations of information…is contrasted with continuous, or analog systems which behave in a continuous manner, or represent information using a continuous function.”

In other words digital media are those that are chopped up into 1 and 0s. The term digital was first used in something like its modern context by mathematician George Stibitz of Bell Telephone Laboratories when describing the control system of an anti-aircraft gun during World War II.

Digital information shares a range of properties which help distinguish it from analogue forms. Two of the most important are:

  • Perfect indefinite copying
    Errors in digital communication are discrete (a symbol is wrong or not), in analog communications error is continuous. This makes copying a degenerative process (think of the blurry pirated video tapes of video tapes of video tapes). Because digital communications are generally ‘error-free’, copies of copies can be made indefinitely without any degradation.
  • Compression
    Digital data can be significantly compressed in size, e.g. the mp3s compression format for music.

So, to recap, digital information is therefore much more readily captured, stored and transmitted than equivalent analogue information because it can be much more readily compressed and copied.

The nature of the network is key

So far so good, but as I said earlier, most information is digital now. Many of our TV and radio signals are now broadcast digitally. Digital information is transmitted down traditional broadcast networks.
And this is why digital can be a confusing term, because it only tells half of the story, because the other fundamental shift that underpins the ‘digital revolution’, is the change in nature of the transmission network.
The broadcast networks that dominated much of the twentieth century were one-to-many networks that allowed one way communication and no connection between users. The Internet, like the telephone before it, is a peer-to-peer system.
We now live in an age in which digital peer-to-peer networks allow information to be readily copied, transmitted and stored by and between individuals. These types of networks open radical new forms of value exchange, and destroy ones that existed in the old broadcast models.

As Yochai Benckler writes in the introduction to The Wealth of Networks:

“the “networked information economy”…is displacing the industrial information economy that typified information production from about the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. What characterizes the networked information economy is that decentralized individual action…plays a much greater role than it did, or could have, in the industrial information economy.”

Digital is different

The way that broadcast and peer-to-peer networks function are radically different. The underlying rules about the propagation of messages and the distribution of value are completely different and fundamentally change the way that individuals interact with one another and with organisations.

Yochai Benckler again:

“the change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.”

So when most people talk about ‘digital’ they’re often not just referring to the way in which information is encoded, but also implying something about the nature of the communications network used to transmit the information they’re usually talking about is this combination of digitally encoded information transmitted on a hyper-connected peer-to-peer network. But that’s not the sort of term you can really use on a CV or to introduce yourself in a meeting.

So while our TV and radio is now mainly digital, it’s still propagated down a broadcast network (though OTT services are starting to significant change this model too). It’s still part of the old world of interruption and advertising.

It’s the importance of the network is really the key – digital encoding is an enabler, but it is the peer-to-peer nature of the network that is driving much of the change.

Digital is a mindset not a technology

So while ‘digital’ is not a great term because it only tells part of the story, that doesn’t invalidate it. Just because the term is not particularly accurate or good, it doesn’t mean that the set of skills or approaches it implies aren’t important to organisations.

The shift to a digital network economy from an analogue broadcast one is, as Yochai Benckler suggests, extremely significant. It requires different ways of thinking about economic value and culture. Different approaches to problems. Different teams with different skills sets and different mindsets. Thinking about engagement rather than interruption, using methodologies to create software and content, rather than 30 second TVCs. And it’s not just practical, it’s also philosophical – there are a set of cultural norms and behaviours baked into the way that people behave online that fundamentally change the way you approach business problems.
Whether you call them digital or not, or whether they have their own department or not is less relevant, what is the skill set and the approach to building value over digital networks.

Digital in organisations

On a practical level, many organisations (beyond the digital natives like Google and Ebay) are now aware of how important the shift to digital is. They know that the ability to connect with people over digital networks is and will continue to be a key driver of competitive advantage.

Many are still struggling to respond. Digital is not just a communications channel, it’s a commercial platform, a place to build communities, services and products. Digital doesn’t fit many of the business structures and silos created to work with the analogue broadcast era. As a consequence digital teams and budgets sit in difference places in different organisations – sometimes digital’s a separate department, sometimes it’s part of marketing, sometimes IT and sometimes product. And where the team sits tends to determine the approach – product people will tend to be driven by revenue models, marketing people by reach and brand perception, IT people by technical innovation and data. Often these approaches are uncoordinated.

There is no simple solution to the organisational challenges posed by digital disruption – some companies have separate departments, others have put digital people in control, some have invested in wholesale digital change management programmes, others have spread their bets, developing a range of approaches with different partners.

What is certain is that those who have started to put digital thinking about content or software at the heart of their business and brand strategies are starting to significant returns on their investment.

Digital is the worst term, except for all the others

Winston Churchill famously said of democracy that it was:

“the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

I feel something similar about the word digital – it’s not a great or very precise term, but it’s what we’ve got and it marks very clear set of skills, approaches and experience that will help drive competitive advantage for organisations in the next decade.

Digital may well be an obsolete term in 2025, when everyone running large organisations is a digital native, but it isn’t now. Which is why I will probably still be being introduced as a ‘digital guy’ to come.

TL;DR

Digital is not a great term, but that doesn’t change the significance and impact of the digital revolution or the difference in mindset and approach required to respond to it.

One thought on “What is Digital?

  1. Steve says:

    It’s interesting that many in the TV advertising world are trying to suggest that digital is somehow over because everything is digital. Like it was some passing phase and now we can resume business as usual. I guess the real test is that I’ll still have digital on my CV for sometime to come.

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