Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisims Chapters 1 & 2

The first two chapters of Kirschenbaum’s book engage in an in-depth study of not only how digital storage works, but more importantly, how we interact with it. Although highly technical, Mechanisms outlines much interesting information and raises many thought provoking questions.

Ever since the first public debut of the UNIVAC computer in 1952 (which tipped the scales at 13 metric tons and entered the public mind by correctly predicting the outcome of the 1952 Presidential election) we have dealt with information in a new way. Kirschenbaum is interested in how digital technologies have progressed from the public spectacle of UNIVAC to being so ubiquitous that digital technologies in the form of information storage can be carried around in your wallet. (Credit cards, Metro passes, etc.)

To most people, digital storage is something we know exists but never see. (Unless you’ve had a reason to take apart your computer before, most people have never physically seen a hard drive.) Kirschenbaum traces the evolution of digital storage in order to make an interesting point. Despite the “advanced” nature of even early storage media – the floppy disk – the physical media still needed to be able to be read by both machine and human. One needed a hand-written label on the disk in order to know what was contained within. Although later iterations such as the CD could store immense amounts of information, it was still necessary to label them. Once copied and labeled with a maker, CDs were then treated tenderly and stored carefully in cases to avoid damage.Kirschenbaum points out that the physicality of storage determines its value. CDs are fragile and are treated delicately. No one would ever think of throwing an uncovered CD into a bookbag and carting it around all day. Yet, we routinely do that with USB drives without ever worrying about the information on it getting damaged. (Nor ever labeling them because they are easily manipulated.) The information contained within these two storage mediums could be identical, yet our interaction with them is very different.

Kirschenbaum is interested in the physical materiality of digital media. It used to be that digital files were physically “yours” in that you would save them to a floppy disk and carry them around with you. Today, all the files we are using for this class reside on the hard disk of a public computer somewhere. We don’t keep them in our possession when we leave this room, and we trust that they will be there when we return next week. More importantly, digital technologies have changed the very nature in which we conceived of certain processes. Take typing for example: when typing on a typewriter there is a physical process that you are involved in. You push the key, and you can see parts of the typewriter move and work to produce what you asked it to do. With a computer, all of these physical actions are hidden away and we only remain on the surface of the screen. The act of “writing” has become completely immaterial. We experience “digital writing” fundamentally differently than we do “analog writing.”

Getting into different types of storage, Kirschenbaum points out that although they serve the same purpose, storage technology such as the floppy disk and CD are immensely different from the hard drive – not only in their physical properties, but in the way we conceive of them. The hard drive resides in a sealed case deep inside your computer, and aside from the occasional clicking sounds, you interact with it only through icons on a screen. The hard drive was revolutionary in that it replaced the previous magnetic tapes and punch cards. Tapes were useful at running programs that were always run in sequence (such as weekly payroll with its alphabetical list run in the same order each week) but were not able to process user-generated information randomly. The invention of the hard drive allowed for much more complex variable processes such as inventory control where different items get sold randomly and in different quantities each time. Computers with hard drives could randomly access different items without running through the same entire process each time.

The proliferation of computers throughout everyday life has led people to interact with information in a very different way than in the past. We seem to have a notion that digital information is ephemeral and untrustworthy. However, one of Kirschenbaum’s chapters outlines how digital information is much more resilient than we might expect. Every email you send leaves a copy of itself across countless different servers as it makes its way to its destination. Every Word document that you delete still has multiple “autosave” copies that remain hidden on your hard drive.

5 Replies to “Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisims Chapters 1 & 2”

  1. I found Kirshenbaum’s points about the contextualizing function of data storage formats and the shifting conceptualization of ownership with regard to data to be thought-provoking and true. You can also see how accessibility and portability always win out in the evolution of data storage formats. While USB storage drives grew increasingly popular as a means of backing up files in the last decade, they are quickly being replaced by cloud storage options that represent the ultimate in access and portability. Manufacturers of such physical drives can be seen clawing for market share with innovations like wireless mass storage devices, but they are obviously fighting a losing battle against services that allow access to files from anywhere without having to remember or transport anything at all.

    The author’s belief in the resiliency of data, which you mention at the end, seems to ring a little false for me. I think there is a line to be drawn between simple duplication and truly secure data. While there may be a hundred copies of a file, there is no guarantee of being able to efficiently access one. At the same time, the Word document example of iterative copies saved with minor or major changes does not promise the security of the exact file in its final version so much as it provides a close proximity that requires restoring or reediting to retrieve the data in the exact form desired. Accessing the previous versions is a fantastic stopgap for the deadline computer disaster disorder (DCDD) that most of us have suffered at least once in our educational experiences, but it isn’t a perfect system and it has the potential to muddy the waters of scholarly pursuit, particularly in arenas like literary analysis when an infinite number of born-digital Word file versions have come to replace less frequent hand-written or typewritten drafts as the potential primary sources of study.

  2. Great post allenp! Kirschenbaum does bring up very interesting points about the psychologically ephemeral nature of digital data (even more so with the rise in Cloud storage devices) and, on the other hand, the actual physicality and materiality of this data. Even if one does not realize it or not, your activity with digital media is being recorded.

    However, I do agree with Jamie’s assertion that even if there are traces of digital data, they are not easily accessible. I would also add that even if one is able to access these physical traces of digital data, who will be able to decipher them? Accessibility and expertise will be obstacles to reading digital data in the future. Kirschenbaum discusses how computer forensics experts can easily decipher patterns left on digital mediums. This, however, poses a problem for future historical research. If a tangible written artifact is lost and found, future historians could be able to read it and analyze it without any additional expertise. However, with digital mediums, when digital data is “lost,” future historians will be unable to decipher this data without expert knowledge. Reading digital data requires a special set of skills that is not needed when reading a tangible written document. So while the digital data may not be “lost,” it is probable that the digital data cannot be deciphered. Reading digital data may be left to a select few, which is problematic for future historical work.

  3. Allen,

    I like your discussion of how people have different interactions with storage systems. People handle CDs and USBs differently but they serve the same purpose (at varying capacities). As for online storage, I’m not very familiar with the strength of its security but isn’t that susceptible to viruses as well? If a virus targets the actual program and what’s stored in it? If so, it proves that point that there is no one perfect way to store information. It seems the phrase “strength in numbers,” as in saving documents to multiple places, is the best way to secure them.

    As for Kirschenbaum’s point that digital information is resilient and remains stored even when we think we have deleted it, brings up the issue of abundance. In the Pages software for Macs, every time you save a document, you have the ability to pull up earlier versions. Again, I’m not technology savvy at all but my question would be if software is saving versions of documents for users to pull up at will, how does that impact storage? I know I will probably never reach the maximum storage available on my computer but for large businesses or government agencies that maintain thousands of documents, how will storage space change as they are increasingly created digitally? And depending on the software, multiple versions of them?

  4. I think that this discussion dovetails nicely with the Rosenzweig article, Scarcity or Abundance. Both authors bring up various issues and challenges we face with ever-evolving digital media. In many ways, we live in an age that gives us a large number of opportunities for preservation. The amount of material created and the number of places it is saved is beyond the scope of what we could have thought of even a few years ago. However, as others in this conversation have pointed out, we do not always have easy access to those files. For example, a corrupted file cannot be opened at all, whereas a piece of paper with some damage can still be partially read.

  5. That’s an interesting point Bridget – will the decision to have larger quantities of data, saved and stored in easier ways necessarily conflict with permanent routes of access to this data? It seems that the faster technology advances, the more barriers we throw up to accessing data that was created, saved, and stored in the (not too distant) past. Although one could argue that no method of accessing or reading data is permanent – a nuclear dark age could wipe out our ability to read/understand documents in ancient languages, or even current languages – it seems that the fast paced digital world has made access to data a real problem. Could this problem be solved if we spent more energy on building bridges between new technology and older technology?

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