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?






6 Replies to “The Forensic Files: Digital Content Edition”

  1. Reading Sterne’s piece on the term “analog,” I kept wondering who he was writing for and what exactly he was asking them to do. I think he makes a compelling point about the inefficiencies and inaccuracies of the way we use “analog,” but does he realistically think he can change the terminology most people use? That’s just not how linguistic evolution works. And if his goal is only to change the way a few rarefied scholars of the subject use these terms, isn’t he putting further distance between academic discourse and popular understanding?

    Maybe it’s just me, but I read the whole article thinking, “that’s a nice idea, but if you think this is going to make any difference you’re crazy.”

  2. When reading Kirshenbaum, the idea of a forensic trace really stuck with me. Before reading it, I had always (naively) thought that the main use of this information existing even after its deletion was in actual criminal forensics. However now I feel like there are a vast number of ways that this information can be used, and the Bailey piece really exemplifies one of these. Retrieving the methods in which data is stored, especially if it is done digitally, can show not only the progression of technology and methodology over time, but it can also show where shortcomings in these methods occur and where additional information needs to be procured to ensure that the data is preserved as effectively as possible. It can show where a written text was changed to a PDF file, and, like Gitelman details, that might mean the information was altered, meaning we need to try to obtain the original document and determine why the information that was omitted was left out in the first place. This trace has great importance to understanding the development of methodology in our field.

    In terms of using the word “analog,” I feel like Sterne is attempting to develop a broader point than the simple “analog is bad.” In academia, as well as society, there has traditionally been a desire to make things one way or another. Good versus evil. Black and white. Apples and oranges. The trend can be seen here: something is either digital or it is analog. As a result, we have begun to overclassify things as analog when they are not. I’m not sure when this piece was written, but by looking at the endnotes it is within the last ten years. This would match up with a growing push to express the fluidity of several concepts, such as racial, sexual, and gender identities. As a result, I feel that Sterne makes an interesting point regarding the overuse of the term “analog” and that there deserves to be a spectrum on which the digital-analog discussion belongs. Unfortunately, with the style Sterne employs, I think Callie puts it best- it’s a nice try, but it is going to take much more than this work to change both the modern language and academic discourse.

  3. The phrase “formal materiality” still seems a little vague to me. Kirshenbaum describes the forensic side fairly well, at least it is an easier concept to grasp, because it feels mechanical: there is a “thing” that corresponds to the process. The formal materiality aspect reminds me more of the language computers use, particularly JavaScript. I don’t know if there is a physical entity that symbolizes a JavaScript variable, but the fact that you can change variables on a whim and without limit tells me that it is not leaving any forensic trace. If that is the case, then there is a lot going on in the digital “behind the scenes” that requires what Kirshenbaum describes as “appropriate formal processes” rather than any physical change.

    Not to get too fictional, but these sorts of processes also remind me of how the brain works. Most neuroscientists, as far as I know, consider the brain to have material functionality, in that thought has a corresponding physical map in the brain matter. There is also the work of older neuroscientists like Karl Pribram who theorized ‘holographic’ processes that are difficult to understand but essentially assumes that thought can exist beyond the matter of the brain. It is a fascinating concept, but it is one that makes me feel that what Christian had said about linking minds is entirely possible, and is perhaps due to the innovations that digital tech has made possible, particularly in this vague realm of “formal materiality” described by Kirshenbaum.

  4. Because of the inherent theoretical nature of Sterne’s work, his piece left me asking more questions than providing answers. Generally speaking, I agree with his assumption that analog has now emerged as a reaction to digital technology, as opposed to the absence of it. This does not seem to be a new concept, although Sterne works to present it as such. Linguistic evolution in itself assumes a fluid changing nature, take Freud’s example again. In reference to the question of if we should stop using the term analog, I don’t think we necessarily need to right now. There may be another word that better describes the “absence of digital”, but until then, using “analog” seems continually applicable. Again however, the inherently theoretical nature of Sterne’s piece allows us as scholars and readers to ask these questions without necessarily having a definitive answer.

  5. When I read Sterne’s article on the analog, I thought of how watches are either analog (the ones with the hour/minute/second hands) or digital (ones with actual numbers instead of hands), even though the analog watch isn’t strictly non-digital (I’m pretty sure you can tell computers to display the time as “analog”). This whole process made me think about how the word analog might have changed or maybe shouldn’t be used only to distinguish something as non-digital, but whats the alternative to it? Invent a new word? In that regards, I agree with Callie’s conclusion, its nice idea, but pretty impractical.

  6. I thought Lisa Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge had an interesting idea on documents, which speaks a little to your questions on digital vs paper archives. The terminology that we have used has shifted over the centuries, including something as simple as the term “print.” What used to be used as term of hand writing documents changed to the printing press. Each had a human touch involved in the process of printing words, and now digital printing allows little to no human involvement. Articles once printed in magazines are not available online, and the digital shift is just another moment in a constantly changing print culture. What’s great about having digital archives is they often are built of of exciting paper ones, and now they are available for people all around the world. Documents that were once filed away and forgotten could now be useful and easily found by researchers.

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