What is Digital?

November 7, 2008

note: It is rather easy to get caught up in the day to day details of what we do and what we know. Sometimes, it is beneficial to take a step back and evaluate the underlying truths of our technologies. Just as customers, media and our world is changing everyday, so are the perceptions of the fundamentals we take for granted. Plus, it helps to have a perspective into the thoughts behind these ideas, what shaped them and what makes them valuable to me as the author. As such, I introduce a What is series aimed at both explaining some basic elements behind digital marketing and providing rationalization for my thought.

Flickr user fredcavazza or FredCavazza.net

Flickr user fredcavazza or FredCavazza.net

I love this graphic from Fred Cavazza. It does an equally fine job of displaying just how simple digital technologies have become and how complex the environment can be. Depending on your particular knowledge and experience in this area, this one graphic can have dramatically different effects.

Thus is the challenge with digital. Depending on our experience, it can have vastly different meanings. My father considered a VCR a digital beast until he retired. Now, he uses more features on a mobile phone than I do. His full palette consists of his mobile phone, digital cable with a DVR, digital phone, broadband, Internet radio and a PC that rarely gets touched. Sure, he stays connected but not through the Internet. My wife is all mobile, and I rely most heavily on a laptop.

All digital devices to be sure, but with such a diverse offering, what truly is digital. I used to teach programming classes. On the first day of class, I would draw a square monitor on the board with a keyboard underneath and a mouse to the right of the keyboard. I would ask the class what it was. Aside from the standard teenage response – “it’s a picture” – the most common answer was “a computer.” Sure enough, not withstanding the absence of the actual computer. We have become so accustomed to the input and output devices that we have lost sight of the workhorse. Same holds with digital. We have become so accustomed to the services and experiences presented to us, we have lost sight of the underlying connections.

Digital as a Technology:

The truly un-sexy role of digital is the technology side. Ones and zeros across the board. Digital is data – and lots of it. The moment data is transformed into something understandable by machines, it has become digital. Binary, octal, decimal, hexadecimal, machine language, assembly languages and today’s object oriented programming languages assist machines in the ability to make sense of data. Regardless of the end result, digital technologies and services are all dependent on a machine’s ability to receive data, interpret that data and render the data in another format.

This has been a large change from the pre-digital world. This relied heavily on physical media. Magazines and newspapers were printed on paper. Photographs were developed on paper using a combination of chemical and silver to process negatives. Television and radio relied on adjusting the wavelengths of different frequencies. Heavy scientific accomplishments in each case. However, digital has broken from these technologies through its use of data to render all formats. Each story, picture, video or broadcast is broken into small packets of data. It doesn’t really matter what kind. If a machine knows that it should interpret the phrase ‘peanut butter’ by playing the first 30 seconds of Fur Elise, it only requires sending the phrase ‘peanut butter’ to accomplish this task. Fortunately, the process is not so cryptic and usually confined to long strings of the numbers zero and one. Highly confusing for us humans to read, but surprisingly efficient for machines.

This results in digital as a technology being able to share resources to accomplish a multitude of tasks. So long as a machine knows how to interpret the incoming data, it doesn’t matter if it is receiving voice, video, print or images. All data flows the same way. There is no silver solution for photographs and broadcast towers for analog signals. There is only a long string of data being streamed to devices through either wired systems or wireless systems.

Digital as a technology is simply the creation of machine readable data, the transmission of that data and the rendering of that data in a meaningful format.

Digital as a Service:

Service is where we begin to see value. These are highlighted in the graphic above. To think in terms of candy bars, digital technology is analogous to the manufacturing and distribution of the candy. The service is the retail display, packaging and availability of the candy bar. The recent heavy adoption of digital technologies is most visible through the service layer. When we connect with friends on Facebook or view videos on YouTube, we think little of the underlying technologies that bring the content to us. Service is about organization and context. We visit YouTube for video. We visit Amazon for commerce. We choose bars for drinks and appetizers. We’d never confuse attending sunday service for happy hour – “Excuse me pastor, what are your specials today?”

But digital has spread well past Amazon, YouTube, Google and the Internet. The same technologies that drive the content we see online also now drive television, radio and telephones. We begin to see the connection between services and the underlying technology when we are sold packages that bring us our phone, broadband and television in one cable. The cable provides the data while the devices render the services – conversation, music, our favorite programming or the Internet.

Digital as a Culture:

While not a primary driver of digital, culture has slowly become the underdog favorite to drive us well into the future. The implications of digital technology and service effects on culture are numerous. While I have no intention of detailing them in this post, they serve as a valuable undercurrent to benchmark innovative and outdated. Perhaps most important to note is how digital services are now able to sustain themselves whereas a decade ago, it required support from traditional media. Today, the tables have truly turned. Digital culture drives many television programs, movies, music and writing.

Above all else, digital culture has adopted the technologies and turned them mainstream. It takes advantages of the services being provided to connect. Digital culture has formed one social network that knows no borders. In a digital culture, every individual is the star of their clique.