Buttons and fingers:
Our ‘digital condition’

Till A. Heilmann
Institute for Media Studies
University of Basel

Paper presented at
Media in Transition 7
“Unstable Platforms:
the Promise and Perils
of Transition”
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 May 2011

Today, I would like to give you a short report on my latest research project.1 What I am trying to do is to reconsider or to rethink digitality. In a nutshell, my project is an attempt to take the term ‘digital’ literal.

What do I mean by ‘digitality’ and why do I think it is worth a reconsideration? Let us, to begin with, assume that we all share at least a basic understanding of what ‘digital’ means and let us then say that digitality simply denotes the condition of something being digital. What I am interested in is, therefore, the common ground of all things digital, the governing principle underlying all the devices, the processes, and the structures we usually identify as being ‘digital’: computers in all their forms (from desktop machines to smartphones), the symbolic manipulations they perform, the codes and data that are the input and the output of such manipulations. As mediality is to single media, so digitality is to digital devices, processes, and structures: it is that which is universal to all the specific cases.

That certainly sounds simple enough. But from a philosophical standpoint it raises some important and difficult questions: For example: Is ‘digital’ an attribute of an object? Is it a feature, a quality, a property, a characteristic? Can we compare the claim that something ‘is’ digital to the statement that a particular object has a certain size, shape, color, and weight? Is the proposition that a bit ‘is’ digital like saying that an apple is edible? A related problem is that, very often, it is hard to say exactly what we are talking about when we say that ‘it’ is digital. In the case of the computer: Which of its parts or aspects is digital? Is it the material substrate of the integrated ciruit? Is it its layout, its logical structure? Is it the voltage differences in the transistors? Is it the charges in the capacitors of RAM modules? Is it the (more or less) rectangular strips of magnetic traces on the platters of hard drives? These are questions I have to leave aside here but which must be addressed within any serious attempt to reflect on the concept of digitality.

Let us now come back to the basic understanding of the meaning of the word ‘digital’ we probably all share: If you ask people—ordinary people, not academics, no computer scientists or engineers or media theorists—“What does ‘digital’ mean?”, typical answers you might get are: “It has to do with computers,” or: “Computers operate digital,” or: “Digital means binary,” or: “Digital data is made of just zeros and ones”. All these answers are, of course, correct to some degree. If you turn to a more scholarly source of information, the answer will be more along the lines of the one you can find on Wikipedia: “A digital system is a data technology that uses discrete (discontinuous) values.”2 And your source might also inform you, as the entry in Wikipedia does, that “[a]lthough digital signals are generally associated with the binary electronic digital systems used in modern electronics and computing, digital systems are actually ancient”.3 Examples of digital systems that predate computers, according to Wikipedia, are the Morse code, semaphores, beacons, the abacus, and—perhaps most important—writing. This rather random and incomplete list already shows how broad the notion of digitality can be. And it should be even broader, I would like to suggest.

The first point of my argument is that the subject of digitality is inextricably linked with this business called media studies. Media studies emerged as a distinct discipline after the Second World War as a consequence of and in response to the technological, social, and cultural challenge posed by a new manifestation of the principle of digitality: the digital computer. This is something the early pioneers of media studies like Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan probably didn't realize themselves. And it is telling that in their analyses they mostly kept to established media like the print, radio, and television and dealt with digital computing only indirectly (in the case of McLuhan) or not at all (in the case of Innis). But it really was the advent of modern digital technology that raised the general and the academic awareness of the mediality of all communication, information, and representation. Only when ‘New Media’—i.e. digital technology in a narrow sense—appeared on the scene did we finally and fully appreciate the existence and importance of ‘old media’ as well. Mediality became a major topic when the Personal Computer and the beginning large-scale digitization of so-called analog media (telephone, television, radio) brought digital technology into people's homes in the 1980ies. Remember that in 1982 the computer was named ‘Machine of the Year’ by TIME magazine.

It is no coincidence that so-called New German Media Theory, which is usually identified with the work of Friedrich Kittler and is increasingly discussed in Northern America, took off at that time. Indeed, the principle of digitality relates in a special way to the main subject of media studies: that of media (pl.) or medium (sg.). One could even say that digitality calls into question the notion of the medium itself. You probably know Friedrich Kittler's notorious dictum in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter that “the general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media”4 and that “a total media link on a digital basis will erase the very concept of medium.”5

The second point of my argument is that although it is central to media studies as a whole the concept of digitality is one of the least considered and theoretically elaborated concepts of our discipline. This may sound odd since there are literally hundreds of publications from the field that have the word ‘digital’ in their title and that deal with digital media and their effects. Take, for example, the recently published volume Critical Terms for Media Studies edited by W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen.6 It is an excellent book with contributions by distinguished experts from the field like Katherine Hayles, John Durham Peters, Bruce Clark, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Alexander Galloway, and others. Their essays cover terms such as ‘Communication’, ‘Information’, ‘New Media’, ‘Hardware/Software/Wetware’, but there is nothing on ‘Digital’, or ‘Analog/Digital’. Another example: The Software Studies lexicon edited by Matthew Fuller from 2008,7 also a very useful collection of texts. There are entries on ‘Algorithm’, ‘Code’, ‘Information’, and, curiously enough, on ‘Analog’, but, again, none on ‘Digital’. As a final example, consider Lev Manovich's Language of New Media from 2001:8 It is rightly regarded as one of the finest books on the subject of digital media. Manovich's analysis is, in many ways, groundbreaking and exemplary to this day. Having said that, his conceptual treatment of the digital is rather marginal. In the elementary chapter “What is New Media?”, Manovich covers digitality as one among five principles of ‘New Media’ (the others being and automation, modularity, variability, and transcoding) on just two pages and discusses it almost exclusively in terms of “Numerical Representation”.

The question, therefore, is: Why have media studies so far failed to elaborate a concept of one of their most important subjects? My guess is that it has to do with two things: 1. The notion of digitality seems to be an unproblematic one. Like I said, we all share a basic understanding of what ‘digital’ means and that works well enough. While most of us—at least in Germany—love to argue without end about the term ‘medium’ (and some of us, especially in the Weimar school, try to abandon the term altogether and want to speak of ‘cultural techniques’ only), the question of digitality appears to be no question at all. And that, I think, results from a plain technical truth: 2. In a way, digitality simply works. The concepts developed and the implementations realized by mathematicians, communications engineers, and computer scientists have been spectacularly successful from a practical perspective: Who would deny that digital technology (in the narrow sense) functions? Numbers, texts, sounds, and images are constantly being stored, transmitted, and processed by a myriad of digital devices from PCs to TV sets to smartphones. And usually, when something works, it is taken for granted and not questioned anymore. (And when digital devices don't work, it is not because the scientific concepts of digitality are not sound.)

I think McLuhan, Kittler, and Manovich don't have a lot to say about digitality as a theoretical concept because Shannon, Turing, and von Neumann have done such a good job with their technical definitions and implementations. But then, media studies is not mathematics, it is not communications engineering, and it is not computer science. Therefore, the third point of my argument and my main working hypothesis is that digitality—historically speaking—goes back a lot further than digital computing or communications engineering and that—theoretically speaking—it has a lot more to do with language (Saussure's language, la langue, language as a system) and with the human hand than with binary numbers (or any kind of numbers, for that matter).

Theoretical discussions of digitality have so far been mostly confined within the contexts of mathematics, calculating machines and computers, communications technology, formal languages, notational systems, and so on. What I am trying to do is to think digitality in a way that does not reduce it to a purely mathematical subject or an issue simply of coding or an engineerings problem. All these things have been done and they have been done extremely well, we must acknowledge. Going beyond known and tried concepts of the digital, I propose to rethink digitality as a basic principle of human existence, right from the start of human culture. I would even go so far as to say that digitality is really what makes humans human in the first place. That, of course, implies a certain notion of what ‘human’ means. Put very briefly, I understand human beings to be fundamentally technological beings in a broad sense of the word. Digitality is not some recent achievement or advancement. It is, I would say, the human condition.

This also means that I do not consider the digital to be the simple opposite of the analog or its binary complement like in differentiations such as culture/nature, technological/human, machine/man. Against such interpretations of the relation between digital and analog I would argue that the juxtaposition does not describe a symmetrical difference but is itself digital. The opposites are not really opposites. Technology is not the other of humanity. It is its very definition.

Wherein lies the technological nature of man and why do I think it should be regarded as being digital? For this part of my argument, I rely on two commonly mentioned criteria: First, the use of language (again, in a Saussurian sense of langue as a system) and, secondly, the use of tools. The question now arises: What is digital about language and what is digital about tools? And my answer is: Pretty much everything! In my book, I hope to develop the argument convincingly and in detail but here I have to make it very brief so I will say only this: I hold language to be digital because 1. it functions as a dicrete combinatory system, 2. it consists of a finite number of elements, 3. the elements are arbitrary in form and function, 4. each element derives its value from the interrelatedness with all other elements, 5. it forms a closed totality, and 6. it is universal in its application. As you will have noticed, this is a very tradional structuralist notion of language. The use of tools is digital because typically (there are exceptions, of course) we make and we hold and we operate the tools with our hands. And what is essential about the human hand, in turn, is its jointed parts: the fingers (including the thumb). Most often, when we say that something is done by hand it would be more precise to say that it is done by the fingers of the hand.

One of the most striking examples for this can be found where the two criteria of the human as a technological being converge: the meeting of language and hand in writing. Usually called ‘handwriting’, the techniqe of producing graphic marks for linguistic units with stylus, pen or pencil should more appropriately be called ‘fingerwriting’. Just observe the way you write: Most certainly, you will be holding your instrument between the tips of thumb, index and middle finger. And even the technological revolutions that are credited with having radically transformed the act of writing, have not changed the fact that it is first and foremost a business of fingers: Think of the movable types of the printing press and think of the keys of typewriters and computer keyboards.

The hand is digital simply because it is that which joins the fingers. In English, this is quite obvious as the word ‘digit’ has preserved the original meaning of its Latin roots: The Latin noun digitus first meant ‘finger’, later on ‘toe’. The post-classical adjective digitalis denoted something related to fingers. Starting in the early Middle Ages and derived from the ancient art of counting or calculating on the fingers (numerare ad digitos and computare digitis), digitus could also mean the numerals 1 through 9 and the according numbers. And that, of course, is where the modern meaning of digital as ‘being composed of numbers’ in the context of computing and communications engineering comes from.

A crucial point in my main argument about digitality is that language and hand are not simply similar in structure but that there is a genetical or genealogical relation between the two. Language and hand belong together. For this part of my work, I rely primarily on French archeologist and paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan who has famously argued in his two-volume book Le geste et la parole from 1965/66 that language and technology (i.e. the use of the hand for the production and use of tools) are but two aspects of the same evolutionary development.9 Upright posture and bipedalism liberated hand and face at once and made possible the construction of tools and of symbols.

I cannot go into the details of Leroi-Gourhan's account of the co-evolution of hand and language here. I only want to remind you that the idea of gesture and speech being evolutionally linked has been further explored and promoted in the last decades, most notably by Gordon Hewes and, more recently, by Michael Tomasello. But what I want to at least briefly mention is how Leroi-Gourhan describes the structural similarity between gesture and speech: He speaks of ‘operative chains’ (chaînes opératoires). What he means by that is that every complex technological process—whether it is manual or linguistic—can be analyzed as a series of discrete elementary operations which are combined by a mental grammar or syntax. And Leroi-Gourhan was convinced that the syntax was the same for gesture and for speech and was laid down in the same regions in the brain. As I am not really interested in the neurological details, I would simply say that in both cases we can find the same principle of articulation. As language is articulated, so is the hand. Again, it may be helpful to consider the word's etymology: The Latin noun articulus means (among other things) the finger or a segment of the finger but also a phrase as a linguistic unit. The Latin verb articulare means to segment or to divide but also to form a sentences. Language and hand are both instruments of articulation.

My project is itself articulated or divided into two larger parts: In the first part, I try to develop the concept of digitality which I have just sketched. In the second part, I try to use this concept for a historical and functional analysis of the button. In other words, I am trying to write a media history of the button. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to tell you anything substantial about this part of my work. Let me just, very quickly, point out a few things:

1. Obviously, a large part of our everyday life revolves around the use of buttons. Just think of all the buttons and keys you have pushed or pressed today: On alarm clocks, lamps, coffee machines, TV remote controls, elevators, vending machines, automated tellers, and, of course, on your phones and computers. It is so obvious, indeed, that is has been hardly noticed by media studies so far.

2. Buttons, keys and switches are so ubiquitous in industrialized nations that their (proper) use should be considered an important, if not the most important, cultural technique. The fundamental cultural techniques of modern civilization used to be reading, writing, and math. And until the 1950ies and 1960ies all of them had to with paper, books, ink, and pencils. We still read and write and calculate today, of course, but now we do it mostly by pressing buttons.

3. The button is a fairly recent thing. Many technologies have been with us a very long time (at least in terms of human history): the wheel, money, writing. As I see it, the button—with the important exception of the keys on musical instruments—is not even 200 years old. It emerges with the electric telegraph. The keys of the Cooke/Wheatstone telegraph in Britain and of the Morse telegraph in the US are probably the first modern buttons.

4. It is no coincidence, I think, that the first modern buttons were used for a new kind of writing. Telegraphy ‘articulated’ language in a new way by digitizing writing—itself already digital—once more. The Morse key is the perfect example of the interrelatedness of hand, language, and the digitality.

5. Nowadays, buttons are a characteristic of electronic devices but their functional logic is not necessarily tied to a specific technical implementation. Think of the mechanical typewriter or the Kodak box (“You press the button, we do the rest.”). Both devices are not electronic, but they can be said to be digital in the sense that I tried to sketch here.

6. At first glance, GUIs, touch screens and especially gesture based interfaces seem to make the button disappear. But what is really happening on the screens of PCs, smart phones, and tablets, is an immense inflation of buttons because now designers can display as many buttons in as many arrangements as they like.

7. What will persist through all the technical changes yet to come is the button as a functional component—whatever it will look like and in whatever way it will be realized. And that is because the button is an extremely simple and yet powerful manifestation of digitality: It makes the basic operations of articulation—selection and combination of elements—visible and readily available.

The button is here to stay and we should give it a lot more historical and theoretical consideration.


1 http://tillheilmann.info/pushbutton_abstract.pdf.

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital; 2011-04-28.

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital; 2011-04-28.

4 Friedrich Kittler: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young/Michael Wutz, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 1.

5 Ibid., p. 2.

6 W. J. T. Mitchell/Mark B. N. Hansen (eds.): Critical Terms for Media Studies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

7 Matthew Fuller (ed.): Software Studies. A Lexicon, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

8 Lev Manovich: The Language Of New Media, Cambridge, MA-London: MIT Press, 2001.

9 André Leroi-Gourhan: Le geste et la parole, vol. 1: Technique et langage, Paris: Albin Michel, 1964; idem: Le geste et la parole, vol. 2: La Mémoire et les rythmes, Paris: Albin Michel, 1965.

Cite as
Heilmann, Till A. “Buttons and Fingers: Our ‘digital condition’.” Paper presented at Media in Transition 7 “Unstable Platforms: the Promise and Perils of Transition.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 15 May 2011. <http://tillheilmann.info/mit7.php>.

Till A. Heilmann (Dr. phil.) is a researcher at the Department of Media Studies at Ruhr University Bochum. He studied German, media studies, and history. Research Associate at the University of Basel (2003–2014), the University of Siegen (2014–2015), and the University of Bonn (2015–2021); doctorate for a thesis on computers as writing machines (2008); visiting scholar at the University of Siegen (2011); Fellow-in-Residence at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa (2012); acting professor of Digital Media and Methods at the University of Siegen (2020–2021); book project on Photoshop and digital visual culture (ongoing). Fields of research: Media history; media theory; media semiotics; history of media studies. Research focus: digital image processing; algorithms and computer programming; North American and German media theory. Publications include: “Blackbox Bildfilter. Unscharfe Maske von Photoshop zur Röntgentechnischen Versuchsanstalt Wien [Black Box Image Filter: Unsharp Mask from Photoshop to the X-Ray Research Institute Vienna].” Navigationen 2 (2020): 75–93; “Friedrich Kittler’s Alphabetic Realism.” Classics and Media Theory. Ed. P. Michelakis. Oxford University Press 2020: 29–51; “Zur Vorgängigkeit der Operationskette in der Medienwissenschaft und bei Leroi-Gourhan [On the Precedence of the Operational Chain in Media Studies and Leroi-Gourhan].” Internationales Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie 2 (2016): 7–29; “Datenarbeit im ‘Capture’-Kapitalismus. Zur Ausweitung der Verwertungszone im Zeitalter informatischer Überwachung [Data-Labor in Capture-Capitalism. On the Expansion of the Valorization Zone in the Age of Informatic Surveillance].” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 2 (2015): 35–48; “Reciprocal Materiality and the Body of Code.” Digital Culture & Society 1/1 (2015): 39–52; “Handschrift im digitalen Umfeld [Handwriting in the Digital Environment].” Osnabrücker Beiträge zur Sprachtheorie 85 (2014): 169–192; “‘Tap, tap, flap, flap.’ Ludic Seriality, Digitality, and the Finger.” Eludamos 8/1 (2014): 33–46; Textverarbeitung: Eine Mediengeschichte des Computers als Schreibmaschine [Word Processing: A Media History of the Computer as a Writing Machine] (2012); “Digitalität als Taktilität: McLuhan, der Computer und die Taste [Digitality as Tactility: McLuhan, the Computer and the Key].” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 2 (2010): 125–134.