They call my generation digital natives, but the word “digital” is starting to feel very dated to me in most contexts. I think I’ve finally figured out why.
“Digital” seems like a word from a transitional era. When digital products were first released, it was necessary to distinguish them from their analog counterparts. Take the camera as an example. For over a hundred years, the word “camera” referred, without a doubt, to an analog device that takes photographs. At some point in the 1990s, it became necessary to distinguish between digital cameras and analog ones. “Digital” was a differentiator—a label that tasted of the future.
Today, digital is the default. To say that my iPhone’s camera is digital is to point out the obvious. Digital will soon be the default for other things as well (if it’s not already): tickets, music, newspapers, storytelling, etc. “Digital” is dated. It’s a moniker that, funnily enough, won’t make much sense to “digital natives.” “Digital” is just the way things are. My guess is that it’s only a matter of time before the word sounds as old as “information superhighway” or “cyber.”
In my writing class last semester, we read a piece from the early 20th century in which the author described a river’s branches as “digital.” Digital, in this context, meant “of or relating to a finger or fingers.” All the students in my class were caught off guard by the use of the word digital in such a natural context. My 60-something-year-old professor was less confused. It’s a strange turn of events, linguistically: a word once used to refer to our own two hands is now decidedly unhuman.