Digit / Figure/ Numeral / Number (Ziffer)
The Ziffer [digit, figure, numeral, number] is a crucial notion in Vilém Flusser’s thinking. For Flusser the Ziffer is the first representation of the alphanumeric code and logical and mathematical thinking. The most important aspect for Flusser, however, is not the Ziffer as mathematical zero, but as “emptiness.” This ties in with the word’s etymology, from the Arabic as-sifr [empty] which evolved to mean zero when used to translate Sanskrit sunya [zero, empty]. According to Flusser, the empty shell of a Ziffer can be filled with anything: a sound, an object, or a set of objects. In this way a Ziffer becomes a constructive module that enables endless games with combinations, that can generate forms and meanings which can then be canceled and quickly transformed into others. This connects the concept of Ziffer to calculation. A Ziffer, just like an empty shell, can contain grains or calculi (limestone pebbles) that represent other objects, and it endows them with real existence and meaning for as long as they fill the shell. Thus transmutations of multiple Ziffern can be performed easily, whereby the calculus is either deconfigured or reconfigured. (Does Writing Have a Future?, 2011, p. 87)
According to Flusser, the German noun Ziffer [digit, figure, numeral, number] originates from the verbs beziffern [to number] and entziffern [decipher, decode]. A Ziffer is an “empty containe[ r] meant to peck out quantities of something” (ibid.) In Flusserian terms texts are rows of Ziffern, whether letters or other characters, that follow a specific code, and reading them means to decode or decipher (entziffern) them; specifically, to pick out quantities, contents, that the Ziffern contain. Written texts pick out certain contents through Ziffern, and the act of reading them picks out in turn what had been picked out beforehand (ibid.). Ziffern, and the operations of beziffern [numbering] and entziffern [deciphering] – assigning meaning according to a code and recognizing preprogrammed meaning – are the core of programs.