What Does Digital Mean

What does digital mean? What a question, right? We live in a digital world, but plenty of people who use computers and smartphones don't understand the operating principles behind them. Unlike analog data, which displays information in a continuous way, digital systems use distinct blocks of information that don't have the same need for continuity. In its most simplistic form, the information can be represented with the numbers 0 and 1. This binary number system is still used in today's computers to handle arithmetic, represent sequences of numbers, and much more. These are the "digits" of digital media.

Some Historical Context

Literally, what does digital mean? Originally, it is derived from the word "digit", which means "number" or "finger" — the easiest tool for humans to perform basic counting. However, the digital concept goes back much further than modern computing. In fact, the abacus, morse code, braille, and all other alphabets are a form of digital thinking. They share a limited set of parameters, which can be sequenced to communicate more complex information.    

Distinguishing Traits

Digital data has a few unique properties that distinguish it from other systems, including:

  • Language: All digital data possesses a particular set of rules. When taken together, these rules create a language. As long as people/computers understand how the language works, they can communicate with one another. 
  • Coordination: All digital systems have a way to distinguish the start of a sequence. In language, we use periods, capital letters, and spaces to mark the beginning of a new sentence. Meanwhile, digital communication uses a sync sequence or special sync word to delineate the beginning/end of a transmission.  
  • Precision: Typically, analog communications are imperfect, with small errors and inconsistencies that differ from the original message. However, digital messages rarely contain errors, and even when they do, further systems known as "check codes" can be put in place to catch errors before they are transmitted. 
  • Clean Copying: Finally, it's possible to make as many copies of a digital communication as you like, without losing quality in the process. This can't be said for analog communication, which introduces more and more noise with every successive copy, like a videotape that has been reused one too many times. 

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