Being digital

I recently heard John Docherty from Cancer Research UK talk about how CRUK struggle with the concept of being digital and often instead do things that ‘feel’ digital. The example he gave was having pdf’s available on their website. So, a user searches for information digitally, CRUK deliver the information digitally, but presents the information in a non-digital way, with a fixed layout that implies it should be printed on to paper.

It started me thinking about what it actually means to ‘be’ digital. I thought back to A-Level Computer Science (this was back in the days when computers were big desktop machines and the internet barely existed) and learning that one of the things that made computers so powerful and different to anything that had been before was what they do and how they do it are the same thing. To a computer everything is just 1’s and 0’s. It’s operating system works in the same way as it’s programs, which work in the same way as its files. This approach provides almost unlimited flexibility, as we see without really noticing it when we edit a Word document, install new features in a program or app, or upgrade the operating system. 

This is essentially what ‘being digital’ is all about. It’s about the content we produce being flexible enough to be reformatted, reused, and re-purposed in any way the user wants. It’s about the data we generate being transparent, transferable, and transmittable, so that it can be used in a huge variety of ways. And it’s about working in ways that are fluid, flexible and free of end-state constraints, so that whatever we produce (whether it’s at file, program, or operating system level if we continue the analogy) we leverage the same kind of efficiency and effectiveness that makes computers so successful.