The limits of Digitisation


Digitisation as a process has allowed us to move beyond the physical interactions and interpretations we have with our world. Allowing us to make connections and discoveries which would have remained out of reach without its process. It’s easy to view digitisation as simply a tool for porting tangible objects to the intangible but it becomes more than this. Questions must be asked on the limitations of this process and also where it excels. Methods and Methodology are important here as a wrong approach to digitising can make the process an ineffectual one. Can the digital capture everything the physical object holds and should this be what we are trying to achieve? Should we accept the digital representation as an object within itself separate from the physical with it’s own role in material culture?

When we view photographs do we simply only consider their visual context? Photographs, as argued by Elizabth Edwards and many others, are material objects which belong to material culture. What does this distinction mean? It changes the nature of how we approach photographs. They become “entangled with orality, tactility, and haptic engagement”. That photographs “cannot be understood through visual context alone”(Edwards, 221, 2012). Photographs are material objects and enforce cultural meaning in their framing and interaction. If this is the case does the same cultural biography of the photograph transcribe over to the virtual world? Can digitisation capture more than simply the context of the photograph?.

If we view photographs as parts of material culture we begin to see the limitations of digitisation. A 2D virtual portrait of a family member is not the same as one which is placed in a central point in a room and containing presence. Digitisation can often only capture the context of an image. It’s hard to ascertain this as it is hard to measure the level of progress tagging and metadata go in furthering the context of the digital image. A limitation may be seen as the photograph is removed from it’s framing and we do not have the haptic sense of the material or scale.

The argument can be made that while digitised photographs may not represent the cultural meaning of the tangible, they do however act and contain a material culture of their own. Digital images contain meaning, biographies, framing and many other factors that define objects in material culture. Photographs in the digital are more than representation but belong to their own material culture. The very process of creating and sharing a digital replica creates it’s own cultural framing and meaning. This is a virtue of the digitised image. The scope an image can be viewed enforcing wide cultural meaning onto it. Recent images of violence and atrocities do not have a physical presence in most daily contexts but their digitised forms carry the meaning and weight. The digitised is limited in it’s attempt to capture the cultural materiality of the physical photograph. But the limitations of the physical is it’s lack of democratisation and it’s lack of scope in which it can be viewed.

Edwards, Elizabeth. “Objects of Affect: Photography Beyond the Image”. Annual Review of Anthropology (2012): 41-1

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