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Making traces in digital media


Many contemporary communicational artefacts involve digital technology in one or more stages of the production and distribution. In analog media, imprints are made directly on a surface, such as the stroke of paint on a canvas, or a paper stick in wet sand. In digital media, on the other hand, signs are not directly attached to or marked onto a surface. There is an intermediating level between the material surface and the potentially meaningful marks left there: Software. In order to understand and describe the digital making of traces, which today is a frequent and important cultural activity, paying attention to software is thus relevant.

The concept of software is often used alongside hardware, which refers to the physical computer objects, such as screen, keyboard and, in particular, processors. Software is used for referring to several “layers”, one of them being application software, referring to programs used for performing tasks beyond running the computer. For lay persons, the kind of traces you may leave is limited to what the application software affords. In my paper I will compare trace-making in digital media by comparing two different kinds of digital technologies: Microsoft Word 2010 for Windows 7 on a desk top computer versus Brushes 3 on an iPad. I will do so by considering a significant act of sign-making: Writing one’s name.

In Word, traces are made indirectly through using keyboard and mouse. Signs cannot easily be put anywhere you want on the surface, as the program is organized for composing horizontal lines of words. Word-based traces do not carry the irregular markers of individuality, but are standardized shapes and letter forms. The program does offer some sets of resources for “individualizing” the semiotic traces, for instance, fonts like Gigi (gigi), Lucida Handwriting and Vladimir Script (Vladmir Script) resembling hand writing. On an iPad, on the other hand, one interacts with the screen itself. The traces are made by interaction between the body and the surface e.g. finger tips touching, moving and tapping the screen. Thus, there is a more direct connection between the body and the technological traces. Investigating the act of writing one’s own name in two different programs thus offers insights into the often unacknowledged role of software in sign-making.

The paper will draw on theoretical perspectives from social semiotics and multimodality theory (van Leeuwen 2005ab, Djonov & van Leeuwen 2011, Kress 2010) and software studies (Manovich 2013, Fuller 2008).


Djonov, E. & Van Leeuwen, T. (2011). The semiotics of texture. In Visual Communication, 10(4), p. 541-564

Fuller, Matthew (ed.) (2008). Software studies. A lexicon. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Manovich, Lev (2013). Software takes command. New York: Bloomsbury.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2005b). Typographic meaning. In Visual Communication, 4 (2), 137-143.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2005a). Introducing social semiotics. London: Routledge.