Matthew Kirschenbaum is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland.  He is also the associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, making him more than qualified to write Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

Mechanisms takes a new approach to studying new media and born-digital writing.  Kirschenbaum explores the contemporary by using case studies from earlier decades to show how technology has changed over time.  In the first chapter Kirschenbaum explains what he describes as ‘Forensic Materiality’ – which “rests upon the principle of individuality” – data leaves distinct marks that are used in computer forensics.  The second chapter is given over to storage technology, specifically, hard drives.  This makes the book unique in its field, as this is a topic that has not really been explored or written about until Mechanisms.  Kirschenbaum argues that it is essential to understand the hard drive in order to fully comprehend new media.

The third chapter focuses on, what Kirschenbaum labels, ‘Formal Materiality’ – “the impositions of multiple relational computational states on a date set of digital object” (9).  The example he gives for this is a digital media file, which contains multiple layers.  Using a walkthrough of the game, Mystery House, Kirschenbaum proves how Forensic Materiality and Formal Materiality complement each other.

Chapter four and five are similar to chapter three in that they use examples (Joyce’s Afternoon and Gibson’s Agrippa, respectively) to show how new media and electronic writing are changed, erased, repeated, and stored over time.  Using computer forensics, Kirschenbaum illustrates how the digital is more material than it may first appear.  It is a tangible thing whose layers can be peeled back despite that fact that we cannot touch the files.

The book is well written though I find it a bit dense.  I was slow in understanding what he meant by Forensic Materiality and Formal Materiality but with later chapters that included the walkthroughs, I was able to gain a better understanding.  This book was definitely written for an audience with some prior knowledge of the history of technology.

How do you think Kirschenbaum’s argument influences us to think differently about storage and born digital media?  Considering how deeply computer forensics can probe into a hard drive or other storage, what should remain private and what should be public?  What effect will this have on ethics?

I leave you with a quote: “Product and process, artifact and event, forensic and formal, awareness of the mechanism modulates inscription and transmission through the singularity of a digital present” (23).


5 Replies to “Kirschenbaum”

  1. The ability of saving previous versions and changes to digital material has opened up new ways we look into preserving and analyzing digital material. Things that are created through digital media and the Internet are difficult, if not impossible, to erase completely because of advances in data retrieval/recovery. With this in mind, it is important to watch how you present ideals and arguments over the digital world, knowing that the ease of information sharing and recording will preserve your words (hopefully not your mistakes) indefinitely.

    To consider what is private and public is dependent on the person; whether he or she decides to post their opinions for others to read or to keep it to themselves is what draws the line. Ethically, this would touch upon issues of privacy, which apply to cases where court orders look into hard drives and computers for information. Again, if the information is not use to be shared with others or in public Internet areas, that should be the difference between private and public. Any consequences that may result of putting up personal views or thoughts over public sites (consider the recent case of Alexandra Wallace and the consequences of posting her view on Youtube) should be expected by that person, despite the perceived "privacy" they may feel in creating such digital media.

  2. This book was interesting to me. I never thought of all the layers and layers of data that go into digital objects. I think where this is best seen in the book is the disk image for Mystery House. I've never given a second thought about disk images besides that they exist, but this book made me realize exactly how important that image is. Seeing how complex the data in a disk image is was astounding.

    I agree that the book was a bit dense. It took me until near the end of the book to put it all together. However, the information in the book is well worth the read.

    Strangely, I came away with the book with a conflicting sense of how fragile, yet durable digital things can be. Perhaps it was the Agrippa example being repeated, about how that was supposed to be a one-time experience, but has lived forever on the internet. Also in disk images, how it's possible for one little bit to be corrupted and ruin the whole thing depending on which bit is ruined.

    Again, perhaps this is me, but the concept of everything leaving a digital mark doesn't surprise me. Maybe I just watch too many cop shows, but I've seen that happen enough. This is even more true now, since we have Solid State Drives, which have a limited number of writes, as opposed to Hard Disk Drives, thus making it more obvious the imprints digital things leave behind. However, this is why we developed encryption and such, so as to protect certain data better. Theoretically, anyone could get your data if they have the tools (such as hackers using keystroke trackers), but we have developed new layers of security.

  3. One of the first things that caught my attention in this book was the image of the 5 1/4 inch floppy disc with the authors explanation that the disc is a "personal relic from my teenage years" when his Apple II computer did not have a hard drive. During the 1980s virtually no computer came with a pre-installed hard drive (I had several of those including a Commodore Vic 20 and a Headstart computer which was advertised as child friendly). When I purchased the Headstart computer I asked about a hard drive and was informed that it would cost approximately $500 in addition to the $1000 – $1500 cost of the computer. My first computer with a pre-installed hard drive was a Packard Bell computer purchased around 1992-1993 but the hard drive was only 500 mb. Today I can not imagine going back to those early days of computer technology…take away my 115 GB hard drive and my 1TB external hard drive…where would I save all of my photos, papers, etc?

    The information contained in this book is quite dense and while I understand some of the information, I feel that I would need to understand more about the internal workings of computers and programing to understand all of the information. Still the information regarding Computer Forensics was interesting. While I watch shows like NCIS in which computer forensics usually plays a role in their investigation, I guess it never occurred to me that it actually is possible to uncover all of that "lost" or "erased" information from computer drives. Much of today's technology was science fiction while I was growing up…and watching technology develop over the years has been interesting…especially wondering where it will take us next!

  4. It is indeed a dense book! I note that not to say that it should have been any different. I think the dense-ness of the book comes in part because it covers a ton of material at a very deep level. I am glad to see such generally positive reactions from folks.

    Sarah, I think you gave us a good working definition of formal and forensic materiality. These are the fundamental concepts here and I hope to spend some time focusing on them in class. Along with these I think there are a few other important terms for us to work with in here.

    The contrast between allographic and autographic really helped me get into what I think Matt is getting at with the two kinds of materiality (p 137)

    Similarly, I think Nick Mumfort’s notion of screen essentialism can help us work through some of the key points of the book, particularly when paired with Matt’s use of the FishWings viewer and the Mystery_House.dsk

    We talked about Manovich’s idea of the central object of analysis in new media as databases last week, and Matt speaks directly to Manovich’s ideas? I think it would be valuable for us to revisit how these two perspectives do and don’t fit together. (we get some of this on page 3 and page 77)

    Oh, and everyone be sure to bring your books to class! We have all class to talk about the book and having the text as a reference will be invaluable.

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