Today, busy chasing “all things digital”, we tend to forget that not all things are meant to be digital. While a natural process and a state of culture that gives us seamless experiences across cyberspaces, digital is only but a layer in a larger tapestry.
Digital and the “Things Pertaining to a Finger”
The Latin word behind digital is “digitus”, meaning a finger. The reason “digitus” and “digitalis” (“of, pertaining to fingers”) has a secondary meaning dealing with counting and numerals is because numerals under 10 were counted on fingers. This is well described in Alfred Hooper’s hypothesis for the origin of the Roman numeral system (see Hypotheses about the origin of Roman numerals).
Now let’s get back to our century, and the case with digital and modern computing, when “digital” came to mean “of, pertaining to, or using digits”.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the work of mathematicians and engineers led to the development of a new type of computing machine. As opposed to earlier analogue devices, which used a continuous quantity (such as voltage) to compute the desired quantity by analogy, these new machines operated upon data that was represented as a series of discrete digits. […] Being composed of such sequences of digits, such data (and so any machine making use of it) was hence said to be digital.
Cit.‘digital’ By Richard Holden, OED
Ironically, the finger root very well suits the way we use computers today, especially touch screens. Of course this is also to change very soon, as computers become part of all other conceivable devices: from beacons to Google glasses for work. What won’t change is the spread of digital – think Virtual Reality, personal assistants,voice controllers, incrementally digital will touch every nook and cranny of our existence.
Digital and the Golden Touch of King Midas
A digital equivalent to many of our media, some of our activities and artefacts is a promising and amazing opportunity. The extreme side of this digital touch however very much resembles the Golden Touch of King Midas.
As the legend hasKing Midas, son of Gordius once wished from god Bacchus that that all things he touched changed into gold. And so they did.
And Midas made this ill-advised reply:
“Cause whatsoever I shall touch to change
at once to yellow gold.” Bacchus agreed
to his unfortunate request, with grief
that Midas chose for harm and not for good.
Cit. P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, Book 11, Line 85 [Ov. Met. 11.85]
Whatever he touched it turned into gold. So did the roses he tried to smell, the grapes he wanted to eat and his beloved daughter he longed to hug…
Digital and Success
Looking at “all things digital” from the lens the legend of Midas and the Golden touch lends is invigorating. It reassures that success in our interconnected age is not about going digital and accelerating the transition as much as possible. Success is about weaving wisely digital into all the other practices and understandings of ours, the ones that have served us before electric speed accelerated everything we do and think. Writing included.
Digital and Writing
Words and code are intrinsically linked, and today, on the Web, they are more than inseparable.Digital empowers beautifully each and every part of our writing processes and practices. There’s no denying this fact. And at the same time, it is not digital that will make our texts richer, it is the human touch that will.