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).