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Seminar Keyword: Digital

There are many words that are used talk about things relating to the internet and computing, and digital is the most widely-used of these terms. It is important to recognize, however, that even though it is possible to talk about ‘the digital’ in the broadest sense, digital is part of a cluster with virtual, online, cyber-, electronic, and e-. These words are interrelated and do not function in isolation from one another. They are always in competition in contemporary language, even if there appear to be clear differences in their usages.

Digital came into English in mC15 as a borrowing from fw digitalis, L. As the adjective form of digit, digital has meant a “whole number less than ten” since its introduction into the language, and it has had various senses “relating to fingers or finger-like structures” since C17. It is the earlier numerical sense of digital that is explicit in digital data – data which is represented using the conventional 0 and 1 of the binary numeral system. Digital was first used to reference the underlying numerical logic of computers in the 1940s, but the connection to the numerical sense behind digital data is not always consciously present in current usage. In the uses that developed after mC20, digital is implicitly contrasted with analogue.

In a similar manner, virtual is always in comparison with real, and its most prevalent formations are virtual reality (VR) and virtual worlds. Virtual retains a major overtone of simulation, and calling something virtual tends to mask editorial or creative decisions since the implication is that the object is objective and faithful to an original. Like digital, virtual is also a borrowing from L, entering English in 1398 from fw virtualis, and it first was used in a computing sense in 1959. The meanings of virtual that are relevant to this cluster are primarily (i) of something that “is a computerized or digitized simulation of something,” and the older sense from mC17 (ii) of something that “may be so called for practical purposes, although not according to strict definition.” Virtual remains closely tied to sense (ii), even as it operates within the digital or electronic sphere.

Along with being the most flexible, digital is perhaps the most technical word of this cluster, and it is frequently used in formations like digital camera, digital technology, digital format, and digital audio. The numerical sense of digital is most present in these technical compounds, and these compounds are the ones that establish the foundation for the digital/analogue distinction. Digital’s role in this binary also equips it with other senses that come from similar oppositions, such as new/old and exciting/uninteresting. Describing something as digital is often just as much about conveying its coolness as it is about connecting it to computing or the internet. For the best example of this, look to the fact that we now live in the digital age.

Digital is also the word from the cluster that appears in theoretical or academic spaces; it is used to talk about abstract concepts relating to computing and the internet. People are concerned with issues of access and the digital divide, a gap – both gendered and socio-economic – that refers to the immediate disadvantages created when certain people or groups do not have equal opportunity or ability to utilize digital resources. The term digital divide is also used to reference the disparity between the number of consumers and producers of internet content. Since 2010, the applications of digital have increased and diversified to the point where one of the most frequent occurrences of digital is in contemporary discussions about digital literacy. The past few years have also shown an increase in debates about the technical and theoretical questions of digital preservation. At the current moment, digital is the most dominant word that relates the specific cultures of the internet and computing to the broader culture, and frequent compounds include digital humanities, digital art, digital image, and digital media. In these cultural formations especially, there need not be an analogue equivalent for the digital object or process. (In visual arts, for example, the counterpart to digital is often traditional.) In many contemporary applications of digital, the word is used more for its association with newness and cultural relevance than for its technical or computing senses, and there is a strong desire to brand digital as the defining feature of the current moment.

Digital, however dominant in contemporary usage, does have its limitations. Since mC20, the most productive way to generate new words for new digital technology or the internet has been to combine old words with a new prefix, and digi- has never been particularly popular. Cyber- was undoubtedly the most common modifier in lC20, but it often sounds outdated in contemporary usage. Cyber- was formed within English as a shortening of cybernetic, which was a modified borrowing from the Greek kyvernítis. Cybernetic came to reference the field of cybernetics in 1948, and the combining form cyber- developed rapidly in the 1960s. According to the OED, cyber- forms words “relating to (the culture of) computers,” the internet, “information technology, and virtual reality, or denoting futuristic concepts.” Some compounds of cyber- that are included in the OED, but which are no longer current, include cyberbabe, cybercash, cyber kid, cyberporn, and cybersurf. It was even possible to talk about “the era marked by the development and (widespread) use of” virtual reality and the internet as the cyber age, but this compound has since been taken over by digital. After 2010, uses of cyber- are mostly negative, and cyber- maintains dominance over cyberterrorism, cybercrime, cyberbullying, cyberattack, cybersecurity, and cyberwarfare. There is also the futuristic aspect of cyber- that is still present in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction and the cybergoth subculture.

In most contemporary applications, e- is now used instead of cyber- to create new words. Electronic and its combining form e- also share with digital the distinction of being different from analogue, although e- is applied more loosely. The word electronic formed within English from fw electron – a compounding of electric, rw electricus, L, and ion that emerged in the lC19 – but the OED dates the first use of electronic in the sense of “carried out or performed using electronic devices or computers” to 1953. The combining form e- began to proliferate in the 1990s and 2000s, although it was first used as part of email in 1979. In some applications, like email and e-book, the combing form e- creates words that are the electronic versions of analogue counterparts. E- is also used to form words that do not have a direct connection to the digital/analogue binary. Such is the case with e-sports, a category of competitive videogames that do not need to be based on real-world sports. As with digital, marking something as e- gives it an air of novelty and labels it as contemporary. However, some uses of e- are just as outdated as many uses of cyber-, such as e-business, e-banking, and e-currency. Once the use of computers becomes standard, there is no longer a need to distinguish between the electronic and the analogue. In the financial world, however, internet banking can still be found as online banking, and both digital currency and electronic currency are still in use, even though e-currency has declined.

Electronic takes precedence over digital only in the arena of music. The large category of music called electronica contains specifically electronic dance music (EDM). While this music should be called ‘digital music,’ following the pattern of digital art and digital media, electronic has been used to describe music since the 1930s. While the difference in typical usage patterns could be based on tradition, the term electronic music may have survived into the digital age to distinguish electronica from all music that is recorded in a digital format.

In a rare area of overlap, institutions of online education are sometimes called cyber charter schools – the schooling model of the future – and sometimes called virtual schools – faithful recreations of face-to-face institutions. Online dating and internet relationships also cause the distinctions between these words to blur, with cybersex being a specific case of the sense (ii) virtual sex and sense (i) of virtual being deployed in virtual love. The practical differences between the words in this cluster are unstable and susceptible to rapid change. It is not unthinkable that a new combining form will come to replace e- just as it replaced cyber- in the lC20. With the greater emphasis on virtual reality in recent videogames, specifically with the launch of dedicated VR hardware, it is also conceivable that virtual may take over more areas of discourse from digital and potentially disrupt digital’s present dominance. So long as the internet and computing technology remain the perceived defining features of the current age, the language surrounding them will likely remain in flux.