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Benjamin Peters’ (2016) superb essay on the keyword ‘digital’

July 20, 2016

Update 15 Nov 2016. I’ve just realised Tom Boellstorff has also developed a Peircean, indexical theory of the digital, see Boellstorff, T. (2012). Rethinking digital anthropology. In H. Horst and D. Miller (eds) Digital anthropology, 39-60. It may be worth comparing the two.

A physical copy of the brand new book Digital Keywords (2016) has just arrived through the post. On first inspection, it looks fantastic, and I’ve got the feeling I will be making frequent use of it in my research and teaching. Here are some quick notes on Benjamin Peters‘ intriguingly Peircean essay on the keyword ‘digital’, freely available here (PDF).

p. 94. Digits do the same thing as index fingers: they count, point and manipulate. They count symbols, point or index the real, and manipulate the social world. It follows you cannot understand digits only computationally (as things that count).

Counting the symbolic: the triumphs of digital computing

p. 95. In 1946, Von Neumann’s cybernetics: all signals can be made into digital format via binary code of ‘discrete, symbolic thresholds’: 0 to mean below level, 1 above level. ‘All real signals can be reduced, with certain loss, into digital symbols’.

But careful with digital theorists’ hype, warns Peters, now exacerbated by big data fans: not everything that is, is countable. Computer uber-nerds may see promise of total convergence, but this will never happen, as we’ll see in the remainder of this essay.

Indexing the real: how digits point elsewhere

Digits don’t only compute, they also point (index). Indexing is not an exact science. Digital media incl. fingers, coins, piano keyboards, filing systems, typewriters, electronic telegraph, etc. All are digitally interfaced (via human fingers).

p. 98 Pragmatist and semiotician Peirce distinguished 3 types of signs (icon, index, symbol) unlike ‘Saussurian signifier-signified binary behind the postmodern turn’. ‘Digital media have long indexed the world’, e.g. index in a book sends you to rough – not to exact – location on page.

In Peircean scheme, ‘smoke signals fire by saying, roughly, “Follow me to an ongoing combustion process”. From Austin to Wittgenstein et al meaningful relations necessarily exclude, i.e. structure of meaning is indexical. ‘Digital media… have meaning insofar as they index the world’. An index finger is not the same thing as the object it refers to.

Because they point elsewhere, digits are ‘fundamentally analogic’ (p. 100). Shannon in 1948 info theory launch (strictly computational approach to communication) said real-world meaning irrelevant to the engineering problem of communication, so long as we ‘understand digits as only those things that count’. (p. 100).

… but in fact, argues Peters, analogue and digital not at loggerheads, they ‘coexist quite happily’ (p. 100), e.g. probabilities have indexical relations with a space of possible outcomes, that is to say, ‘all digital messages… are part of a possibility index’.

Manipulating the social: the discontents of digital power

Big data has big data brokers. Social network sites transform ‘our many different selves into one [composite] persona’. Digits ‘manipulate our many social worlds’ (103) and the power to do this is highly unevenly concentrated.


104. To understand digital age it is not enough to understand only numbers handled by digits, as ‘digital media can point to or index all possible worlds, not only our real one’.

104-105. Human hands were first digital medium ‘to don real-world units that apply with probabilistic, and never precise, degrees to all possible worlds around us’. Much work needed ‘to model more equitable and sustainable worlds’.


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