The Forensic Files: Digital Content Edition

This week we are furthering our discussion of the digital by focusing on what is behind documents, digital photos, and videos. How are they constructed? Do they contain their own separate digital language?However, before we direct our attention to these questions Lisa Gitelman encourages us to consider the media history of the document through the past 150 years.

Now I must admit, this concept of the paper document is one I have been considering since 2005 when I first begged my parents to let me stay up past my bedtime to view a little television program called The Office. In between hilarious hijinks and bouts of absurdity, the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company struggles to stay afloat while contemplating “limitless paper in a paperless world.”(The Office, Season 4, Episode 5: Local Ad). I know most people tuned in for the tactless antics of Michael Scott or Jim Halpert’s clever office pranks,  but I have always been drawn to the paper backstory. It was a poignant commentary on our digital transition by helping us grapple with our paper past. How was paper so foundational to the modern world and what does it mean now that it has been supplanted by the digital?

Gitelman explores documents and their “fillability” and how these documents prescribed a structure, way of thinking, and bureaucracy that has impacted our society (22). She also acknowledges our transition to the digital as we encounter these documents today in the form of PDF’s rather than on paper. Gitelman grapples with the photocopy and what it meant to have things copied and distributed. She uses the example of the Pentagon Papers to demonstrate that a Xeroxed copy is to be read as a document but wants us to acknowledge that the person making the copy is editing the original document. In the case of the Pentagon Papers David Ellsberg copied the papers and distributed them but cut off the words “top secret” from every page and didn’t copy certain sections. She uses all of these examples in order to show that we can apply this knowledge of the paper document to the digital word. Looking at the document helps us understand how we are conditioned to understand and looking at the photocopy helps us understand how the documents on the internet can be edited and changed as the morph from form to form.

Now we must turn our attention to the digital.

If you’re anything like me, you ascribe to “screen essentialism” (Kirshenbaum, 31). This is the tendency to focus only on display technologies without considering what is behind the document, photograph, video, audio file, or image on your screen. I can certainly say I have firmly been a screen essentialist. Until this week, my concept of the word document upon which I constructed this draft would have only extended to the words that I type that appeared onscreen.  Likewise, my knowledge of the inner workings of my computer extended only to the loud noise my fan has been making over the past couple months.

My tower of digital content ignorance has crumbled with Matthew Kirshenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Kirshenbaum draws upon the ideas of forensic and formal materiality to illustrate the importance of this form of writing. brings us beyond writing and language as we know it, and encourages us to consider electronic writing and digital language as a real and essential form of writing. He takes us inside the magnetic cards that store information for our metro cards, constructs a world in which our hard drives exist as a “volumetric” or three-dimensional writing space, and addresses the “fixidity” and “fluidity” of this writing space (Kirshenbaum, 91, 56).

Kirshenbaum draws back the curtain and reveals this new writing and writing space he raises the issue of digital forensics, or the activity of recovering or retrieving electronic data, interpreting it, and preserving it. Like regular forensics, this practice operates under the assumption that “every contact leaves a trace” (Kirshenbaum, 49). In other words, when you delete a file from your computer, it is not automatically erased from your hard drive. Instead, it continues to exist until it is overwritten. Kirenshenbaum likens it to an Etch A Sketch where you can still see the previous drawing behind the new one.  This means that this form of writing is both ephemeral and fixed. You can attempt to erase it or write over it, but there is often still a trace.

Sometimes, the trace is an advantage. Data is retrievable. Often new technologies and genres of digital components reconstruct previous information and data into new forms, as in the TAGOKOR  file which contains information about Korean War U.S. army officer and soldier casualties. Jefferson Bailey’s article “TAGOKOR: Biography of an Electronic Record, encourages us to consider the complexity of managing and preserving digital archival records. It traces the transition of this digital archive from punch cards, to magnetic reel tape, to tape cartridge, to disk.  This continual reprocessing of information has left a trace on how this archive is “inscribed, described, and preserved” (Bailey). Like Kirshenbaum, Bailey encourages us to note that while this archive is a representation of tragedy and human experience, it is also a record of the various methods of technological infrastructure which make up its current form.

“Digital Formats: Factors for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality” by Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer continues this exploration of the world behind the screen. It outlines the framework followed by the Library of Congress when evaluating born-digital content for preservation. There are many different types, subformats, and versions of the digital content formats people are typically familiar with. For example, a PDF is too generic and a further distinction must be applied to the file to distinguish it from various subformats. Additionally, digital archivists must consider sustainability factors when choosing a format for digital content including, disclosure, adoption, transparency, self-documentation, the impact of patents, and technical protection mechanisms.

While Kirshenbaum, Bailey, Arms, and Fleischhauer have revealed the fascinating world of digital writing, Jonathan Sterne encourages us to reevaluate our conception of “analog.” He notes that there is currently an expanding notion that everything that is not digital is analog. Originally analog was meant to indicate points of contact between digital technologies but by the 1970’s it indicates contrasts from digital technology. Just as we construct the digital world as an abstract cultural conception, we also construct the analog. As we move forward in time, the technologies we now consider analog were often understood as “jarring or artificial.” (Sterne, 40). At one point Freud’s voice on a phonograph was described as “cold and mechanical” while today it would seem “warm and organic” (Sterne 40). All this is to say, as we become more comfortable with technologies, our concept of what is digital and what is analog changes.

A Couple Questions to ponder:

Should we stop using the term analog?

What is the difference between forensic materiality and formal materiality

How are documents different when they are compiled in online databases versus collected and stored on paper in filing cabinets?






Practicum: Glitching Files

There’s a lot to be learned from taking the assorted files we all have laying around on our computers and taking them apart, seeing what makes them tick, and then breaking them.  First and foremost, doing this is a chance to recognize that, although we may look at an image file or text file as simply an image or text, they only appear as such when viewed through a lens provided by our computers.  Those files, however, are not those things.  At their most basic, they are set of electromagnetic states of certain physical spaces on your hard drive (or electrical states of your solid state drive, if your computer uses one of those).  In an intermediate sense, the computer uses more basic lenses to view those states as code, and that code may need several layers of interpretation by your computer before you see it in the form it was intended to be viewed in.  This should remind us that, although we often imagine a dichotomy between the physical world and the digital, all digital objects are merely physical objects which are being viewed in a certain manner.  We can achieve similar understandings of the physicality of digital items by placing a magnet near one’s hard drive, provided one does not mind loosing the further use of that hard drive.  We should also be reminded that the appearance of these digital objects is not static, but depends on what lenses they are being viewed through, and we are also reminded that, although two image, text, video, or sound files of different types may appear similar to us, they are actually quite different.


While it may sound technically complex to some, glitching a file can actually be quite an easy thing; many of us even manage to do it by accident.  To demonstrate, I will use 3 different types of image file (with the hopes of demonstrating how these are different), as well as an audio file.  Those trying this themselves should make sure to make copies of all the files they intend to glitch and preferably cordon them off in a separate folder, to make sure they don’t accidentally break a file they didn’t mean to.  For the images, I’ve selected a .jpg (a preliminary design for an unbuilt class of USN warships), a .png (a shot from the opening of a recent, award winning television show), and a .gif (a motivation penguin).   The specific images have been chosen in the hopes that they will prove memorable and to show that one can learn from glitching whatever images one has on hand.

To begin with, the .jpg in an unaltered state:

Next, we will convert this file to a text file.  To do this, you will need to rename the file, so that the extension (the 3 letters at the end of the file name after a period, which exist to tell the computer what type of file this is and what program it should use to open it) says .txt instead of .jpg.  If you cannot see any file extensions, open file explorer options from the control panel and ensure all options pertaining to extensions have been set correctly.  When the file has been converted to a .txt file (a common type of text file), it should then be possible to open it with a word processor.  Some word processors, such a Microsoft Word, may recognize that the file is not what it appears to be, but wordpad and notepad will both suffice.  I will be using Notepad++, a version of notepad with extended functionality.  The result looks like this:

Note that although this is mostly gibberish, the “Photoshop 3.0” appears in the first line, and “8BIM” appears several times in the first few lines.  Removing these will not actually change the image.  On the other hand, deleting several full lines, particularly from the very beginning or end, can easily result in a file which cannot be opened.  More judicious removals of one or two lines here and there from the beginning of the body of thefile resulted in this:

Copy and pasting segments of text at the center of the document, meanwhile, added this to the image:

By doing this, one can see the methodical way in which the data which the image represents is stored; if code from the top of the file is removed segments of the image are also removed, starting from the top.  .png files, on the other hand, are less straightforward.  Here is an unaltered .png and the same file as text:

Once again, the Photoshop name appears, but beneath it, we see a collection of metadata, intended to provide us with information about what this image is.  Most of it is incomprehensible to those who are not more technically skilled than me, but the “history” section is interesting, as it contains a date, presumably when this file was created; this date does coincide with when the show was airing.

If we start deleting segments from the body of this image, we see a much different result:

The new image contains not only the missing and correct segments we saw in the .jpg, but also an area which is highly distorted.  This indicates that the file does not store data in a purely linear fashion, pixel by pixel, but stores some information about one area of the image in one part of the file and other information elsewhere.  Also worth noting is that the blog did not allow me to display this image, so the print screen function was used to replicate it.

.gif files are interesting because, although they are an image format, they allow for simple animations to be displayed.  Here is one accompanied by the same file as a .txt.  Note that you will need to click the .gif for it to play.

Once again, there is a small amount of comprehensible text, this time in the form of “GIF” at the very beginning of the file.  Editing the file results in a much shorter animation playing, with a small amount of distortion of the image:

As you can see, this also results in the .gif playing automatically, for reasons which are beyond my technical skills to understand.  We can see from this that even a small amount of glitching can result in large changes to a .gif file.

As I am unclear of the legality of simply uploading an unaltered music .mp3 file to wordpress, I have elected to use music which all readers should be able to access through Youtube, specifically, the song Sonntagsfahrer (Sunday Drivers) by the Ostrock band Puhdys. If readers are interested in making their own glitches of the same song, an .mp3 can be purchased from Amazon, and otherwise, it can be listened to here:

As a file, the song can also have its extension changed from .mp3 to .txt, which looks like this:

Once again, the file starts with a small amount of metadata, such as that this file came from Amazon.  Editing this file as a text document can produce surprising results; it often takes the removal of large swaths of text to produce a change in the song, usually in the form of segments simply disappearing, rather than being distorted.  I will refrain from posting my own examples, again in the interest of not attracting the attention of amazon’s lawyers, but one can easily see this by editing their own .mp3s.

I hope this has proven instructive, as to the nature of the files we often interact with.  If your own experiments with glitching files produce any interesting results, please share them below.