Digitalization and Digitization

Pleased to share a draft of an article Daniel Kreiss and I are working on for the upcoming International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy. We think this compliments some of the great work being done through the Digital Keywords Project—especially Digital and Analog.

We would appreciate any comments you care to give!


‘Digitization’ and ‘digitalization’ are two conceptual terms that are closely associated and often used interchangeably in a broad range of literatures. This article argues that there is analytical value in explicitly making a clear distinction between these two terms.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the first uses of the terms ‘digitization’ and ‘digitalization’ in conjunction with computers to the mid-1950s.[1] In the OED, digitization refers to “the action or process of digitizing; the conversion of analogue data (esp. in later use images, video, and text) into digital form.” Digitalization, by contrast, refers to “the adoption or increase in use of digital or computer technology by an organization, industry, country, etc.”

We follow this distinction in this article and define digitization as the material process of converting individual analogue streams of information into digital bits. In contrast, we refer to digitalization as the way in which many domains of social life are restructured around digital communication and media infrastructures. In the pages that follow, we discuss these distinct, yet interrelated, concepts.



Scholars across disciplines use the term digitization to refer to the technical process of converting streams of analog information into digital bits of 1s and 0s with discrete and discontinuous values. As communication scholar Tony Feldman (1997, 2) argues, unlike analogue data with “continuously varying values, digital information is based on just two distinct states. In the digital world, things are there or not there, ‘on’ or ‘off’. There are no in-betweens.” That digital bits have only two possible values leaves many to argue that, in the words of Robert Pepperell (2003, 126), “digital information is discrete and ‘clean’, whilst analogue information is continuous and ‘noisy’.” Robinson (2008, 21) defines analog as: “smoothly varying, of a piece with the apparent seamless and inviolable veracity of space and time; like space and time admitting infinite subdivision, and by association with them connoting something authentic and natural, against the artificial, arbitrarily truncated precision of the digital (e.g., vinyl records vs. CDs).” One example is the synthesizer, which in the mid 1960s and 1970s produced sound through “continuous variables such as changing voltages” instead of binary 1s and 0s (Pinch and Trocco, 2002, 7).

While some have traced digitization as a form of communication back to light semaphores (Winston, 1998), a more narrow definition locates the origins of the concept in the development of binary numbers. Some identify the foundations of digitization in the late 17th century and the work of philosopher Gottried Leibniz, who completed initial work on binary number systems (Vogelsang, 2010: 7). Somewhat later, Leibniz’s ideas came to form the basis of the Morse alphabet, and therefore Morse code, which became the standard system of the telegraph. Morse code, as a binary system based on only two different states, proved far more resistant to transmission, coding, and decoding errors than alternatives (Vogelsang, 2010: 7). Though innovations like Morse code, as one of the earliest widely used digitization system, binary numbers laid the historical foundations for later developments in computing and digitization (see Edwards, 2004, x-xii).

Digitization is a process that has both symbolic and material dimensions. Symbolically, digitization converts analog signals into bits that are represented as 1s and 0s. Digitization therefore produces information that can be expressed in many different ways, on many different types of materials, and in many different systems. Theoretically, almost any material with two easily differentiated states can be used to store and communicate digitized signals, including silicone transistors, punch cards, or atoms. This has motivated many scholars to highlight the “immaterial” (e.g. Manoff, 2006, 312) quality of information generated through digitization, while deemphasizing the material systems (transistors) on which that information is housed. That being said, it would be a mistake to ignore that digital information is ultimately stored on and communicated through the physical orientation of material transistors as bits. While digitized information is not limited to a specific set of materials, it is still, in the final instance, grounded in the configurations of materials. It is this way in which digitization mediates between the material and the immaterial (Manoff, 2006; Hayles, 2003) that makes digitization a unique process.

Just as digitized information can be represented on any set of transistors, all forms of data such as alphanumeric text, graphics, still and moving pictures, and sounds” can be digitized (Verhulst, 2002, 433). The fundamental process is one in which “all signals are chopped into little pieces” (van Dijk, 2005: 44) and encoded as strings of 1s and 0s. While this process can be applied to almost any type of information, this conversion process occurs through very specific technical mechanisms and requires specific technical infrastructures that alter the original signal itself.

For example, digitization can proceed through sampling. As Negropone (1995: 14) describes, “digitizing a signal is to take samples of it, which, if closely spaced, can be used to play a seemingly perfect replica.” Yet sampling, by definition, means selecting some aspects of an analog signal and rejecting others. While this can be done so as to suggest the appearance of a perfect replica, within the process of digitization an algorithm makes decisions about what to keep and what to discard. At their most basic level, algorithms are “encoded procedures for transforming input data into a desired output, based on specified calculations” (Gillespie, 2013). Hayles (2003) argues that this encoding is a process of “interpretation.” Ultimately, programmers have written these algorithms, just as engineers have designed and built the machines that carry out digitization processes. While popular and scholarly accounts often describe digitization as a technical process, humans have delegated particular decisions about what signals should be kept and what should be thrown out to algorithms that carry out digitization processes. While it is useful to recognize the active mediation work performed by digital technologies, Jonathan Sterne’s history of sound reproduction makes a strong case that the same is true for analog technologies. There is a pervasive sense that analog technologies produce representations that are more faithful to the original than digital representations that continually reconstruct bits in the moment. Sterne, however, looks to similarities between the two, recognizing that all forms of mediation necessarily interpret the world (Sterne, 2003, 218-219).

Much scholarly work has recognized that digitization produces data with a set of distinguishing characteristics. Negroponte stresses the universality of digitized information, arguing that “because bits are bits” they have the ability to “commingle effortlessly” (1995: 18). A bit can interact with any other bit, regardless of “the forms that were initially transformed into digits, or what the digits represent when accessed by the end-user” (Flew, 9). Yet, the universality of digital information requires that it be stripped of any non-essential “additional information” (Dretske, 1982: 137), or of any “intrinsic redundancies and repetitions” (Negroponte, 1995: 16). While some observe and lament the way digitization necessarily strips communication of its interesting imperfections, others contend that digitization, by reducing communication to its basic components, produces a lingua franca, capable of facilitating universal communication (van Dijk, 2006).

Being striped of errors, repetitions, and static allows digitized information to be easily stored and transferred, permitting the “easy manipulation and display of these data” (Verhulst, 2002: 433). Digitized information also affords “data compression” (Negronponte, 1995, 15), that allows for “controlled storagein large volume” (Verulst, 2002: 433). That is to say, in being easily manipulated, digital data provides users with additional control over information (Owen, 1997: 94; Beniger, 1986). This additional control affords users the agency to “shape their own experiences of it” (Feldman, 1997: 4). In other words, digitization permits an expansive degree of interactivitybetween user and information. This is, perhaps, most forcibly stated in legal scholar Lessig’s (2008) broad idea of digital technologies supporting a democratic form of “remix culture.”

Implicit in digitized information’s ability to be controlled is the capacity to be easily, cheaply, and accurately transferred between points. As digital bits have only two possible states, 1 or 0, receiving nodes will likely make fewer errors in transferring and decoding data than occurs in analogue systems. Scholars argue that this may result in “lossless” transmission, giving rise to “less faults and replication of mistakes and more opportunities for exact processing and calculation” (van Dijk, 2005: 44). At the same time, this underscores that transferring digital information does not include any actual transfer of physical materials. Instead, there is only the transfer of information about the configuration of transistors—meaning there is only copying. Some see this as eroding the distinction between the original and the copy (Groys, 2008: 91), an idea that holds particular relevance for legal issues of intellectual property (see Benkler, 2006). As Lessig (2008, 98-99) notes, this raises troubling implications for the expansion of intellectual property:

“The law regulates ‘reproductions’ or ‘copies.’ But every time you use a creative work in a digital context, the technology is making a copy. When you ‘read’ an electronic book, the machine is copying the text of the book from your hard drive, or from a hard drive on a network, to the memory in your computer. That ‘copy”’triggers copyright law. When you play a CD on your computer, the recording gets copied into memory on its way to your headphones or speakers. No matter what you do, your actions trigger the law of copyright. Every action must then be justified as either licensed or ‘fair use.'”

Perhaps the most developed line of work that captures the replicable, interactive, and distributive affordances of digital media has come from legal scholarship, particularly around the way digital media have complicated the enforcement of intellectual property rights. In the quote above, Lessig identifies a central tension of digitized information. On one hand, digitized information is “non-rival,” meaning that it can be used repeatedly by a number of different people without diminishing or degrading the original digital object. Combined with the fact that it has “close to zero marginal cost of reproduction” (Brynosofisson, 2014), permits cheap, faithful, and widespread copies of digitized content. The ease of replicating digital information, the interactive affordances that have resulted in the proliferation of creative re-combinations of cultural content, and the easy distribution of digital creative work have challenged the monetization of copyrightable content and undermined the ability to assert an enforceable copyright over cultural goods (Ananny and Kreiss, 2011; Benkler, 2006; Boyle, 2009; Fisher, 2004; Lessig, 2008). On the other, industries have responded by creating a host of ‘digital rights management’ technologies that lock-down consumer products and even ‘fair uses’ of copyrighted works (Gillespie, 2007), and by pressuring platforms and individuals to remove all potentially copyrighted work, even those that a court may judge to be a fair use of copyrighted content (Vaidhyanathan, 2003). Indeed, these issues at the intersection of law and the affordances of digital technologies have animated two decades of work on the regulation of the Internet (Mansell, 2012) in addition to struggles over fundamental issues of jurisdiction and governance (DeNardis, 2014).

Copyright protection is not the only legal concern implicated in digitization. Recently, many have considered the relations between digitization and surveillance. Most notably, Negroponte recognized two decades ago that digitization produces “metadata,” or “a bit that tells you about the other bits” (1995: 8). Metadata is produced by the radical simplification or reduction of information in digital form. The system produces information about digital streams by distilling signals down to their most basic form. Metadata permit computer systems and infrastructures to index, search, and store digitized information. Digital metadata is often created by users themselves in ways that classify and index information (Mathes, 2004). Metadata has been an extraordinarily important aspect of digital media in contexts ranging from knowledge production and social scientific research to government surveillance. It has helped fuel the rise of ‘big data’ social science efforts, from revealing the networked structure of blogs and patterns of social ties on Facebook to the patterns of social media use during the Arab Spring, traffic of political news sites, and patterns of diffusion of health messages. Metadata has also proved enormously useful for state agencies seeking to monitor people. The legal contexts of state surveillance using metadata has been the subject of the ongoing debate around the National Security Agency’s use of digital media for surveillance people around the world, the extent to which was revealed by Edward Snowden. In the context of this debate, Healy (2013) showed the power of metadata, using organizational affiliations to “discover” Paul Revere and his fellow revolutionaries without needing to consider the content of their communications.

Across disciplines, many scholars have united in heralding the radical uniqueness of digitization and digitized information. Many have suggested that digitizing information endows it with significant and meaningful qualities. Scholars see these as the characteristics of digital information and the necessary consequences of digitization. For many, digitization radically transforms the entire landscape of media. Certainly, digitization has become ubiquitous; now, almost all the media technologies we routinely interact with are digital. Increasingly, there are no analog counterparts to be posed against digital technologies. The ultimate implication is that digitization reverberates across social groups and social interactions. Scholars often use the concept of ‘digitalization’ to discuss these macro-level changes in social structure and practice.



The first contemporary use of the term “digitalization’ in conjunction with computerization appeared in a 1971 essay first published in the North American Review. In it, Robert Wachal (in Sanders, 1974: 575) discusses the social implications of the “digitalization of society” in the context of considering objections to, and potentials for, computer-assisted humanities research. From this beginning, writing about digitalization has grown into a massive literature—one concerned less with the specific process of converting analogue data streams into digital bits or the specific affordances of digital media than the ways that digital media structure, shape, and influence the contemporary world. In this sense, digitalization has come to refer to the structuring of many and diverse domains of social life around digital communication and media infrastructures. In this section, we focus on a few prominent works that address the implications of digitialization that scholars have traced across some of the many different domains of social life.

As he observes the digitalization of “the new economy, society, and culture….,” Manuel Castells (2010), views digitalization as one of the – if not the – defining characteristics of the contemporary era. Castells is part of a larger set of scholarship that points to the underlying media and communications system as a way to explain or understand many, if not all, aspects of contemporary social life. As van Dijkargues, “for the first time in history we will have a single communications infrastructure that links all activities in society” (2006: 46). This communication system is wholly characterized by “new media,” often defined as “old media that have been transformed through their reconfiguration into devices capable of managing digital signals” (Verhulst, 2002: 451). There are a number of ways that scholars have analyzed how digitalization shapes the contemporary world. For example, scholars have focused on the rise of globalization, a process that has both facilitated, and been facilitated by, the expansion of the economy beyond national borders through digitalization (Sassen, 1998). The digitalization and globalization of the economy has subsequently eroded national sovereignty, reshaped conceptions of materiality and place, and facilitated new circulations of culture, capital, commodities, and people. In finance alone, many scholars have shown how digital media are now central to global capital flows (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2002).

Discussions about digitalization often invoke ‘information’ as the organizing mode of many domains of social life. Although the scholarship on ‘the information society’ is incredibly vast and varied, much traces its roots to early work by Fritz Machlup (e.g. 1962) and Daniel Bell (1976) that noted broad shifts in national economies and occupation patterns. Within this framework, many scholars have argued that that “computer technology is to the information age what mechanization was to the Industrial Revolution” (Naisbitt, 1984: 28). Even still, some have recognized the gross technological determinism implicit in this suggestion (Webster, 2006: 12).

Other scholars explain digitalization’s wide-ranging effects on social life by noting how digitalization broadly motivates “convergence” of disparate sectors. Most notably, many have identified ‘digitalization’ as bringing about convergence across media, which drives many of the broader social and technical changes detailed below. Some scholars have argued that digitization’s ability to produce a medium that mimics, simulates, or consolidates all other media means that the digital must ultimately be seen as a “generalized medium” that consolidates “diverse forms of information” (Beniger, 1986: 26), or that is ultimately “mediumlessness” (Negroponte, 1995: 71). Ultimately, the rise of digital media “has entailed a reconsideration of what a medium is, because the digital computer can reproduce or simulate all other known media” (Jensen, 2013: 217).

Scholars have explored the idea of ‘convergence’ across a number of different processes and domains of social life, identifying a number of different forms of convergence. For the sake of clarity, we synthesize existing discussion into four key dimensions of convergence related to digitization and digitalization: infrastructural, terminal, functional and rhetorical, and market convergence.

Perhaps the most common form of convergence discussed in the literature is infrastructural convergence. Scholars describe how digitization brings about the convergence of the material infrastructures of communication. There are two main forms of this type of convergence. First, network or “infrastructure” convergence (van Dijk, 2006: 7) refers to the physical network of wires and tubes (Blum, 2013) that undergird the communication infrastructure. Because digitized information can be manipulated and understood by (nearly) any digital system, “any network can be used to transmit all kinds of digital signals” (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2008: 1320). This means that “a single physical means—be it wires, cables, or airwaves—may carry services that in the past were provided in separate ways” (Pool, 1984: 23).

Second, device or terminal convergence refers to how digitization entails the consolidation of multiple media devices into one (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2008: 1320). The quintessential example here is the smartphone, which now takes the place of a number of former devices (telephone, computer, camera, audio recorder, calendar, calculator, notepad, etc.).

As network infrastructures and devices converge, there is a corresponding functional convergence in “services” (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2009: 1320; van Dijk, 2005: 7). The smartphone again offers a telling example. Not only does the smartphone physically consolidate a number of devices, but it likewise performs a number of functions associated with other mediums. Scholars often associate this functional convergence with a corresponding “rhetorical convergence,” or the combination in one medium of cultural forms “that were earlier only seen in separate media” (Fagerford, 2003: 1). The larger implication of functional and rhetorical convergence is the “eroding” of the “one-to-one relationships that used to exist between a medium and its use” (Pool, 1982: 23). That is, convergence works in both directions: not only can a single device now perform multiple functions, but also a service that was provided in the past by any one medium-be it broadcasting, the press, or telephony—can now be provided in several different physical ways” (Pool, 1982: 23).

As different services converge through common infrastructures as a result of digitization, there is often a corresponding industry or market convergence. Some scholars see this in terms of consolidating once separate industry sectors, including the “computing, telecommunications, and media and information sectors” (Flew, 2005: 10). Others see this as a more general blurring of the “the distinctions between infrastructures and services, software and media content” (Storsul & Fagerjord, 2008: 1321). Both types of convergence are associated with the consolidation of companies, in which individual companies expand, entering into multiple markets or sectors. Though most agree that this sort of convergence is occurring, some explain it mainly through technological changes—in particular technological convergence. Others suggest, “technology-driven convergence of modes is reinforced by the economic process of cross-ownership” (Pool, 1982: 23). Regardless of the cause, industry convergence has significant implications for media regulation, as “Digitization and convergence drastically change the foundation upon which the traditional regulatory broadcasting regime is based” (Verhulst, 2002: 434).

We now turn to the discussion of a number of scholarly cases that posit digitalization both as an organizing mode across social domains and as a destabilizing force given these broader trends that we have synthesized as infrastructural, terminal, functional and rhetorical, and market convergence.

Cultural and Knowledge Production

Over the last decade, a number of scholars have argued that we have seen radical shifts in the production of culture and knowledge. In a world with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia, scholars have argued that entirely new forms of non-market and non-proprietary production of knowledge and culture have sprung up through the unique affordances of digital technologies, and this has changed who is empowered to create in society.

For example, perhaps the most influential theorist of cultural production is the legal scholar Yochai Benkler, whose The Wealth of Networks (2006)has shaped nearly a decade of scholarship into the legal, technical, and moral implications of digital media. In Benkler’s work, ‘peer’ or ‘social’ production can take shape for the first time at a global scale. Thanks to the rapidly failing costs of the production and distribution of digital information, peer production begins to supplant other market mechanisms of producing knowledge and culture. The rise of digital media has meant that it costs little to create and disseminate everything from digital movies shot with iPhones to political commentary on blogs. This is especially the case compared to the production and distribution systems of the industrial behemoths of Hollywood studios and professional newspaper outlets. Even more, Benkler argues that individuals no longer need direct market incentives to produce cultural and knowledge goods, nor the indirect market subsidy of intellectual property rights. Instead, individuals will create and distribute digital goods simply through their love of creation, their passion, or just good will. When brought together through digital platforms, millions of individual contributions to knowledge production, such as Wikipedia, or culture can become highly consequential in their own right.

Benkler further argues that these new non-market and cooperative modes of labor produce economic value that is increasingly rivaling that of the nation-states and bureaucracies of the past. Indeed, Benkler argues that many of these new forms of cultural and knowledge production occur outside of formal management structures. Instead, labor is now driven by the interest, values, and time of laborers who can easily seek and pursue projects that fit with their own particular constraints and time and are psychologically and socially gratifying. More broadly, Benkler’s argument is that digital media are ushering in an era in which this new mode of laboring is transformative, rapidly challenging information production in domains ranging from professionalized journalism to academic book publishing. Furthermore, by collaborating on large-scale projects, individuals benefit, becoming psychologically gratified, cooperative, and team oriented.

Political Participation and Collective Action

A number of scholars have traced similar effects of digitalization on the contemporary shape and processes of political participation and collective action. Political scientists Bruce Bimber, Andrew Flanagin, and Cynthia Stohl (2012) have detailed how civic engagement changes in an information environment defined by digitalization. Echoing Benkler, these scholars argue that citizens now have radically different expectations for and much greater ability and desire to shape their own participation. Whereas participation in a pre-digital era was mostly defined by the incentives and opportunities that organizations could provide to individuals to entice them to participate, in the digital era individuals have radically increased choice. Therefore organizations need to provide more open forms of engagement that enable individuals to define and act upon their own definitions of membership and political action.

Many of these forms of engagement are premised on the use of data and analytics that are made newly possible with the explosion of digital ‘trace data’ that can provide real time feedback on the actions and interactions of users. For example, David Karpf (2012) has analyzed how digitally native civic organizations such as rely on digital analytics as a form of “passive democratic feedback.” These organizations work to assess what is important to their “membership,” by tracking what they click on. Importantly, the organizations’ comparatively small leadership uses digital media to shape organizational strategy, set goals, prioritize tactics and action, and ultimately provide members with a voice in the organizations’ priorities. Even more broadly, Karpf shows how the very structures, processes, and forms of engagement have shifted given the informational affordances of digital media.

While these scholars have generally focused on the new forms of organization that new and legacy groups have fashioned in response to digitalization, Lance Bennett and Andrea Segerberg (2013) have observed the ways digitalization affects the forms and possibilities for collective action. Their book, which follows cases such as the ‘los indignados’ in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the United States, emphasizes how digital media have facilitated leaderless and decentralized forms of collective action that take place in lieu of formal leadership and organizational structures. Communication, in this account, is shaped by the textures of often highly personalized narratives and forms of expression that bridge public and private speech. As such, it can happen in lieu of formal organizations that have played an important role in shaping collective action in previous decades.

Statehood and Globalization

Other scholars have looked to the ways digitalizalization is shaping globalization processes and the nexus of states, authority, and citizenship. Saskia Sassen uses the idea of “digitization” (in the more expansive way of “digitalization” used in this chapter) to make a number of arguments about the new, global configurations of “territory, authority, and rights,” which she sees as the foundational elements of the state (2006, 336). Sassen argues that digital media have enabled new forms of cross-border politics, expanded the political playing field to more resource poor organizations and individuals, created scales of action and information that cross local and national, and provided more contexts for the linking of local sites with global networks. Sassen also stresses the importance of not conflating digitalization with the Internet. In the context of finance, for instance, it is less the Internet, and more the growth of “dedicated, private digital networks” that have played roles in enhancing the power of global capital, including enabling non-state market forces to enforce financial considerations on national governments and influence policymaking.

Sassen’s work illustrates that the digital and non-digital are mutually imbricated, wholly intertwined with one another. Digital media shape and are shaped by disparate social, political, economic, and cultural forces and contexts. Global media assemblages have reconfigured aspects of territory, authority, and rights, but they are deeply implicated in non-media forces and deeply entangled with local places. Sassen shows how the digital has reworked “spatio-temporal orders,” (415) including working against rationalization, standardization, and bureaucratization.

Social Structures

Finally, a number of scholars have analyzed the effects of digitalization on social structures. Scholars have broadly suggested that social “infrastructure is changing under the influence of communication networks” (van Dijk, 2005: 156). In particular, many have argued that digital networks give rise to vast changes in the logics and structures of global social organization. Manuel Castells has argued that the increasing digitalization of social organization, for instance, has given rise to a “network society.” Though there has been much debate about whether networks (Castells, 2000), individuals (van Dijk, 2005), or “networked-individuals” (Rainie and Wellman, 2012) are the base unit of the network society, there is broad agreement across these different perspectives about the connection between networked social structures and global digital communications infrastructures. At the same time, in each of these literatures, scholars are careful to describe digitalization and the network society as constituting each other. For van Dijk, it is the “mutual shaping processes” between social structure and communication technology that “create the network society” (van Dijk, 2005: 156). For Castells, social and technical forces constitute each other so much so that “technology is society, and society cannot be understood or represented without its technological tools” (Castells 2010: 5).


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[1] There is a large literature in the medical science fields dating from the late 1800s on ‘digitalization’ that refers to the administration of the digitalis family of plants for the treatment of heart ailments. For the purposes of this chapter, we do not consider this specialized use of the term.

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