Digital Obsolescence: ‘Digital’ As a Redundant Lexical Legacy

Emmet Ó Briain
3 min readFeb 28, 2019


‘Digital’ is, in terms of language, a legacy issue.

Remember ‘Digital’ Music?

Nothing dates us more than the degree to which we recall the primacy of an analogue world through language. At some point, and it may have been thirty years ago in many cases, it became unhelpful to use ‘digital’ as an adjective to make distinctions between certain categories of activities or objects.

It was relevant when ‘digital’ was a point of difference, such that which was ‘not digital’ was constructed as standard, not requiring modification, and unexceptional: the norm, in other words. And, it is true that, in some arenas, ‘digital’ remains a meaningful marker of difference. For example, digital archives and libraries remain in the minority compared to their physical counterparts.

But these are exceptions and for those industries where ‘digital’ is the norm, surely abundance has rendered its use largely superfluous? Which is why no one talks about “digital music” or “digital watches” anymore:

As technologies such as digital photography and digital television entirely replace their analogue counterparts, they will …simply be called photography and television. So as digital technology becomes ever more pervasive, the word digital itself may return to relative obscurity.Richard Holden, Oxford English Dictionary ‘digital’

So, as the analogue and physical rises in scarcity relative to digital, ‘digital’ is neither a sensible marker of difference nor a relevant marker of distinction. Digital is free; it is an indicator of abundance, devalued by its disposabiity.

And, yet, there remains a Jekyll and Hyde quality to its use in professional discourses. In some sectors, particularly in advertising and marketing, the idea that the term ‘digital’ — in and of itself — might bestow some cachet still persists. In other instances, it is used to perpetuate a difference between the traditional, the normal and the ephemeral ‘digital’ activity- as a means of diminishing the importance of certain activities.

Of course, in its defence, people will say that ‘digital’ doesn’t literally mean ‘digital’ in most contemporary contexts; it’s a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning just what you choose it to mean — neither more nor less. Which is the case for lots of corporate language but, then, the question arises as to how useful it is to remain committed to a word so devoid of specific, or commonly understood, meaning.

What is clear is that ‘digital’ is a corporate word, often (misguidedly) used to give the appearance of sophistication to mundane activity, but almost entirely absent from the vernacular. Its retention is, above all, a reflection of an impoverished corporate lexicon that betrays the sensibilities of organisations and industries uncomfortable with change.

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Emmet Ó Briain is founder of QUIDDITY — an insight consultancy specialising in the qualitative analysis of organisational, customer and public discourse and cultures using naturally-occurring data and language.

A lot of my work involves talking to organisations about how they do work (research, design, advertising, communications) and exploring the meaning and consequences of the language they use for broader organisational culture, internal work practice and external communications — get in touch if you’d like to hear more!

As ever, if you enjoyed this article, I would be grateful if you could share it with anyone you think might be interested.



Emmet Ó Briain

@ the margins of #mrx (@emmetatquiddity) & music (@yesboyicecream). I do qual at scale with language: quasi-corpus-discourse Analysis. Lay Ethnomethodologist.