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.