Rembrandts and Floppy Disks

One of the themes that I took away from the readings this week (and continuing from last week) is that what we see on our computer screens is a performance. A kind of theatrical performance, where what we view on the screen seems magical and perfect, but all the while a lot of chaotic movement and hard grunt work is transpiring behind the curtain.

 

Kirschenbaum asserts that digital objects can be defined in three ways: as physical (inscription), logical (the code that is interpreted by software) and conceptual (what is presented to us). While we deal on a daily basis with the conceptual aspects, and many of us are at least familiar with the logical ones, there has not been much literature focusing on the physical aspects of digital objects, and this is what Kirschenbaum wants to highlight. We remain in the grip of a “medial ideology, with many of the plain truths about the fundamental nature of electronic writing apparently unknown […] or overlooked” (45). He delves deep into looking at how this developed, at how the fundamentals of digital inscription removed digital objects from human intervention, and of how the hard drive was locked away in a box –turning into a “book [that] can be read without being opened” (81). To look at the forensic materiality of digital objects is to understand what makes the magic happen, and allows us to get a more complete examination of the digital object itself.

 

And what do we find when we look at the forensic materiality of digital objects? We find magnetic reversals on a large smooth disk accompanied by a read-and-write head, which acts as a signal processor and converts the analog magnetic reversals on the disk to the formal digital binary material, and vice versa. This system creates a nonvolatile but variable environment for information inscription: the information stored on it is reusable but reaccessible. And the question that rises when it comes to digital media is this: can we use the archival materials and bibliographic data provided by their forensic qualities to reveal a larger critical and interpretive program—or, in other words, reveal the artists’ original motives, thoughts, and milieu? Can we look at an artist’s hard drive and floppy disks to understand what she was thinking and what cultural norms and practices were at that time of inscription, in the same way that we can look at a Rembrandt, look at the materials he decided to use, the strokes he left on the canvas, and understand more about what was really going on at the exact moment Rembrandt started to paint it?

 

Kirschenbaum argues yes to this question, and after looking at all of the examples given in this week’s readings, I can readily agree with him. By looking at Warhol’s Amiga files, for example, we can determine that he was able to complete those drawings within a short amount of time from each other thanks to the time stamps left on the files, even if Arcangel thinks that the time stamps are incorrect. The disk image of Mystery House revealed fragments of two other games, Dung Beetles and Blitzkrieg. This gives us an insider view into the cultural and user context; if anything, it tells us that Mystery House was more important to that user than the other two games.

 

The problem with analyzing this bibliographic data, however, is that because the computer is so successful at hiding its forensic qualities from the human eyes, we very easily overlook these qualities. Out of sight, out of mind. I had no clue about many of these technical features of hard drives, CDs, and floppy disks before reading this book; and I’ll admit most of the technical descriptions still went over my head. But I take it that this is Kirschenbaum’s point – we’ve separated ourselves from the physical materiality of digital processes for so long that we’ve forgotten how they worked. And we need to relearn this information so that we can in turn save digital objects in a more complete form, including their formal and forensic qualities.

 

The perfect example of this is the Warhol Amiga files. If Cory Arcangel hadn’t shown a strong interest in recovering those files, and if the Computer Club at Carnegie Mellon hadn’t had the technical expertise required to reverse engineer the software, then would Andy Warhol’s floppy disks have stayed in their boxes at the Warhol museum forever, serving no purpose other than add to their collection catalog? Another example is Jonathan Larson’s Word Files. If Doug Reside didn’t decide to migrate all 180 of Jonathan Larson’s floppy disks, then the “fast saves” versions of his lyrics for RENT would be frozen forever on those floppy disks, and the glimpse into Larson’s creative process would be remain tucked away and unknown.

 

This is the note Kirschenbaum ends on – that we’ve already lost too much, and that we need to start acting now. And ensuring that archivists and preservationists know exactly what they’re dealing with when it comes to digital media is the first step that needs to be taken.

Collaboration through reinterpretation

Hi all! I’m Eric, and I’m in my second and (knock on wood) final year in the MLS program, focusing primarily on archives and special collections. Like many of you, my background is not in libraries; I got my undergrad in English and then worked for several years in international education and development. I’m currently […]