Week 3: Digital Forensics, Materiality, Fixity & is-ness
The inner workings of a computer have always been a bit of a mystery to me. I grew up when most people didn’t have a computer in the house, let alone several, and the Internet had never been heard of. While in school, I actually remember taking a computer class in which we were taught how Apple’s Graphical User Interface worked. Over the years, thankfully, I progressed beyond operating the mouse, and learned how to use a variety of software applications. But the inner workings of the computer, were still a bit vague – just visions of bits adding up to bytes and kilobytes and megabytes, and so on.
Kirschenbaum, in his book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, recounts a story from his youth when he stopped saving files to a 5 ¼-inch disk and began saving them to the computer itself. The storage was hidden away, behind the hard plastic case of the computer. He explains that architecturally the personal computer didn’t really change, but the “psychological impact” of saving information to the computer, instead of a removable floppy disk, cannot be ignored. He explains that no longer labeling a disk or having one to carry home after class just felt different. The physical aspect of the digital work was taken out of his hands and was sitting concealed inside the computer. In other words, what happens in the storage device stays in the storage device – and if you’re like me, the details of it all weren’t something I necessarily needed to know.
According to Kirschenbaum, the storage mechanism of a computer is both a product and a process, and despite the work being created behind the scenes and hidden away as 1s and 0s, it is indeed physical in nature. It has a materiality to it. He goes on to describe in great detail the history of computing, disk arrays, tracks, sectors, read/write heads and hashing.
All of these hidden storage and transmission actions point to a very structured process that must consist of rules and standards in order for it all to work. However, Kirschenbaum refers to a forensic materiality, which “ . . . rests upon the principle of individualization, the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike” (p. 10). He explains further that a computer is able to create an illusion of immaterial behavior, in which data can be identified without ambiguity, sent without anything being lost, and copied with no variance occurring. This illusion hides the fact that errors can occur anywhere along the line.
These errors, whether it is a function of copying over old data, as in the case of the Jonathan Larson collection described by Reside, or intentional tampering, which occurred with the Mystery_House.dsk game in Kirschenbaum’s book, could pass us by, completely unnoticed. But, through the use of a hex editor, these hidden artifacts come to light and provide us additional forensic evidence and new insights. Reside’s article for instance points out the ability to see Larson’s creative process after the hex editor finds deleted text.
These pieces of forensic evidence that get tucked away should make us question what in fact we might be copying – it’s not always what it seems. So, as a digital archivist, you have to ask, what versions do you keep? Or do you save all of them? Which version is the “authentic” or “authoritative” one? Or is that an impossible choice to make as a digital archivist?