As a language person, I spend a lot of time with dictionaries. The way a single word carries meaning across multiple contexts fascinates me. Tracing the word back to its root, or following its etymology, reveals the interwoven yet frayed nature of languages. Tales of conquest and trade are the common thread in the global linguistic fabric. That historical perspective clarifies the international presence of certain words, such as ananas (pineapple), and the nuanced meaning of others that translate less cleanly. In English, for instance, “to know” could be savoir or connaître in French or saber or conocer in Spanish; savoir/saber denote knowing facts whereas connaître/conocer describe knowing someone or being vaguely familiar with something. Distinguishing between the concrete and the abstract has become blurry during the pandemic. This week, I stumbled across one word that offered unexpected clarity.
In a conversation about Hancher’s reopening, “digital” kept surfacing but only in one of its senses. To me, the adjective sparks an image of a finger, “digital” having etymological roots in the Latin digitālis, which means “measuring a finger’s breadth.” The Oxford English Dictionary further indicates that in math digital numbers comprise the discrete integers 1 through 10, or those that can be counted on the fingers. My internship discussion, however, addressed online possibilities for the auditorium. “Digital” thus provided the “connective tissue,” as we say at Hancher, between the spaces I have been navigating.
Most recently, I have entered the performing arts, which involve “digital” processes in both the “finger” and “online” senses of the adjective. Musicians, for example, employ digital skill when keying, stringing, strumming, or otherwise manipulating an instrument. Every movement, down to the pointed extremity, is intentional for actors and dancers too, as the videos at the end of this post demonstrate. The fingers are thus part of the artist’s technique, which the mise en scène accentuates. Pre-recorded music, carefully-arranged lights, and occasional animations digitally enhance the tactile elements on stage.
On virtual platforms, though, the tactility from which “digital” originates fades away. Other senses too are getting lost. To communicate online requires only two senses: sight and touch. Sound is optional, but scent and taste serve little purpose. I have yet to encounter a device that transmits aromas the same way that YouTube transmits videos. Across devices, nevertheless, functionality depends on the human touch. Typing involves all of digitality as fingers push buttons that trigger a sorting of 0s and 1s, resulting in an electronic display. Yet humanity has slipped off screen. The arts, as I appreciate them, provide a corrective lens by focalizing on shared humanity.
In the performances that I have streamed, empathy carries across cyberspace well enough, though I miss living the performance with fellow spectators. As virtual platforms expand and tactility contracts, I notice too a divide between “essential” and “non-essential” jobs. Most “essential” work is manual, meaning “of or relating to the hands.” People employed in factories, construction, and healthcare, for example, do not have a virtual option. The “non-essential” category, on the other hand, covers more “digital” tasks, or anything where physical exertion stays within finger range, such as in the performative arts and in education. Those “digital” sectors seem to fit naturally online. To translate from the tactile to the screen without losing meaning, however, requires dexterity.