Digital as a noun

24 July 2013

I work in IT. I have done so for a long time. I’ve always loved programming - it has grown from my hobby to my profession over more than 20 years now. I first sold software over the internet in 1999 - quite a long time before the App Store came along and made that kind of thing a whole lot easier.

It’s never been particularly fashionable to say you’re “in IT” though. Historically, the cool kids always thought of computers and programming as rather boring, with a couple of major exceptions - the Dot-com bubble of 1997 to 2000, and the boom in apps of 2010 to the present day.

For much of my professional career I’ve worked building and maintaining financial software. It’s not glamorous, it can often be difficult and dull, but it certainly pays the bills. So that’s my background. Recently though, I’ve been moving away from financial software as I build up textadventures.co.uk. My work now is introducing me to a whole range of new people - people who are involved in education, games, interactive storytelling and so on.

This means that over the last couple of years, I’ve been exposed to a lot more people who are professionally in the arts, culture and media sector. And it’s been interesting to see how attitudes to technology differ here compared to elsewhere.

There’s one word that seems to typify the difference in thinking about technology: “Digital”. It’s not a word that I encountered very much before, but it seems to be everywhere here.

I remember that “digital” always used to be an adjective. Digital watches, digital thermometers, digital television. But in arts/culture/media, it is used as a noun. I’ve seen job titles like “Head of Digital”, and people talk generally about being “in digital”. From what I understand, it’s used as a shortcut to mean, approximately, things to do with apps, websites, smartphones, tablets… that sort of thing.

What I find strange is that outside of this sector, when people talk about apps, websites, smartphones and tablets, they don’t tend to talk about “digital”. They’ll just use the actual word for whatever it is - or if they’re talking more broadly, they might say “software”, “technology”, “IT” or “the internet”.

So why the new term? Are the old terms too boring? Perhaps those words are not “creative” enough?

Effectively, anybody with “digital” in their job title works in IT. They may swear blind that they don’t, but they do. If your work involves building something technological, even if you’re providing creative direction or doing project management, you’re doing the same thing that the millions of people who work in IT do.

(An exception may be if you work purely to create content - as a writer, artist, filmmaker etc. I’m not really talking about those activities here, although once again we already seem to have good existing words for them. Prefixing “digital” to these just because the end result appears on the internet isn’t meaningful.)

Still, this is not really a problem if it’s just about the badges and labels we use. Different groups use different words for the same thing all the time. You may use a particular word to describe your job, because consciously or unconsciously it gives you a certain social cachet. This is fine, if everybody in your group understands what you mean. It is a problem if it alienates people with a technical background from outside the arts, though (and I can’t help but feel there could be something of a class issue here, as if not wanting to risk being associated with “blue collar” IT work like maintaining servers and fixing computers).

More seriously though, I think the use of this term is actually detrimental to the success of “digital” projects. Many of the problems that digital projects in arts and culture face are down to this denial that these are really IT projects - boring old IT projects, just like people do in the rest of the world. Building apps, creating websites, making games - the rules do not change just because you’re in a different industry. By pretending that “digital” is a brand new area, it seems to me that a lot of knowledge is being discarded - knowledge that we have accumulated over the last few decades of building the exact same kind of stuff under a different label.

My friend Martha Henson, who knows a lot more about this sector than I do, wrote a blog post covering some of the issues she has seen - Why I’m fed up with digital projects (and why I’m not): a rant

I am fed up of seeing people and organisations produce digital rubbish: poor apps, clunky games, badly designed microsites and other half-arsed online, mobile and technological systems and whatnots. I am fed up of people who are smart about digital, who think about users, who ask the right questions at the start, who embrace technology without fear and understand how to apply it, being over-ruled by people who’ve just bought an iPad for their kids and now assume that everyone has them and that this is all the justification they need to insist upon spending £50k on a new app for their organisation.

The problems range from poor design to poor project management, unrealistic budgets and a general lack of understanding about how technology works and how software is built. As Martha suggests in her post, the people who call the shots often don’t have a technological background - but they do have an iPad.

They think “apps” are different to what we used to call “software”. Software was expensive. You went to a shop and could pay a lot of money for something that was slow, and difficult to install and use. Apps aren’t like that - apps are cheap, very quick to get hold of, look lovely and they’re easy to use. Good iPad apps feel a world away from the clunky programs we used to use on our beige desktop PCs - so different, that I suspect some people think a lot of the things we learned about building software no longer apply.

And of course, because consuming apps is cheap and easy, then building apps should also be cheap and easy. Right?

So we see insultingly low Invitations to Tender from cultural institutions with low budgets, thinking that they can have an app built for them for a tiny amount of money. There are clients who don’t even know why they want an app in the first place - they just know that there are loads of apps, and their competitors have apps, so they must have apps. And there are clients who want to spec an app in detail up-front, and get the lowest bidder. The classic waterfall model. You wouldn’t build “software” like that - but somehow, this is “digital”, these are “apps”, and so the rules must be different, for some reason.

Within the world of computing and software, we’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. We’re not there yet - the whole of IT is an incredibly young industry, which is why I love working in it. It would be silly for cultural institutions to throw all of that knowledge away because they think they’re working on something even newer and completely different.

But I am new here and may be missing something, so please let me know what you think in the comments. You can also find me on Twitter @alexwarren.