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?