Is this digital?

*This is part of a series. Please be sure to read the Introduction before continuing below.

This chapter is presented in a video essay. Video below. Transcript below that. (And when you’re done with that, check out Why doesn’t my bitmoji look Asian?)

Image/screenshot of looking up terms in google dictionary and OED: epistemology, theoretical framework, research, culture, pedagogy while VOICEOVER:

One thing I consistently do in graduate school is define terms. Which is good, because another consistent part of graduate school is that I think I know what terms mean, and then realize I don’t actually. I appreciate this exercise of defining terms because I often use terms to which I don’t know precise meanings and clarifying them helps me sharpen those meanings and therefore my thinking.

Images of our definition of “digital” while VOICEOVER:

At the beginning of my Digital Rhetorics course, our professor asked us to define rhetorics and digital. According to my memory, this was a challenging activity. I think perhaps because we were having a hard time, we started mentioning terms we associated with the digital, and that helped, but offering examples and offering definitions are different things.

Images of B-roll* while VOICEOVER:

After our activity I continued to think about this term: what is “digital”? I kept asking in my head, “is this digital” when I encountered different experiences as part of my everyday comings and goings: email is digital, isn’t it? But why? Is non-email mail digital? Why? When our study group started thinking about ideas for our final projects, I offered that I would probably do something to respond in an extended way to lingering questions from the class, among which was the question of digital-ness. As the group helped me brainstorm ideas for how to present my project, we started joking around that I could do some sort of Ken Burns spoof, asking in an “artsy” way, “is this digital?” We started listing all the things the “this” could refer to. It was hilarious. It still is. I guess you had to be there.

But really, what is digital? What makes something digital? Are you participating in a digital activity right now? Why or why not?

To help me figure out how to define “digital,” I started asking my family and friends

What does it mean for something to be digital?

Here are the responses they gave me: Images of people’s responses on screen.

compression, something electronic, something that isn’t physically tangible. Some people defined it by what it wasn’t: something analog, something mechanical. Others defined it as how information was accessed: through an electronic means like via a smartphone, or a television, or online. Most people were confused by my question.

And I don’t blame them. Think about it for yourself: what does it mean for something to be digital?

The only two people who had definitive answers for what it means for something to be digital were engineers: Andy, a friend and mechanical engineer, Image of response on screen. defined digital as a binary, a 0 or a 1. My brother, a software engineer, said that Image of response on is discrete values (usually 0 or 1) based on signal strength like voltage.” When he uses his job-specific terms he often says words I understand separately, but not together.

And then he dropped this on me: Image of response on screen. A thing being electronic has nothing to do with the distinction between digital and analog. Excuse me? Again: A thing being electronic has nothing to do with the distinction between digital and analog.

Is this a definitive definition of “digital” or can “digital” also mean something that’s electronic?

To illustrate what I mean, a comparison: a few years ago my same brother and I got into one of the biggest arguments we’ve ever had about the term bar-be-que. Having lived in Atlanta for eleven years I have redefined my definition of bbq to refer to how a meat is cooked: insert pic of smoker smoked. In a smoker.

If you have prepared smoked meat, you have bbq. But people outside the south don’t define it that way. For them, when you cook on a grill, insert pic of grill that’s bbq.

My brother claimed that you can use the term both ways and people know what you mean. I maintained that you couldn’t use the term “bbq” unless you’re referring to a noun (like, a plate of smoked meat image of plate of smoked meat) and not the verb (like someone grilling image of person grilling meat) Photo by ALP STUDIO on Unsplash.

We argued for days until my husband said it was the stupidest argument ever and we should just shut up and stop talking about it.

Is this similar as the definition of digital? Specialists have one definition and laypersons have another? Besides your profession, what other identity features could influence our conceptualization and definition of digital: age, ablebodiness, gender?

When do our definitions of digital matter? What can our definitions of digital tell us about how we see the world? Would a better understanding of what is digital help us understand our digital identities? Image of my bitmoji

Final image: “Check out ‘Why Doesn’t My Bitmoji Look Asian’ for more!”

*B-roll clips

  • Filming a crowd
  • Using an atm
  • Woman crossing street and cellphone
  • Paying for my coffee via Square Space
  • People on their computers
  • Paying for parking (in coins) at an automated machine
  • Guy texting on phone
  • Woman on computer keyboard and mouse
  • Card trick with audience participation
  • Man on an acoustic guitar
  • Google map on phone in car
  • Microwave clock
  • Screenshot looking up definitions of “digital” in google dictionary and OED
  • Screenshot going on to Netflix

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