Digital Detectives, Materiality, and Medial Ideology – Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

At the core of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, lies a philosophical conundrum: what is the nature of digital objects. Are our Word documents, audio and video files, and computer programs ephemeral? Or do they exhibit a materialism in the same manner that we associate with traditional forms of information storage and transmission. As information technology has proliferated in the 21st century, everyday encounters with highly complex technical concepts have become a fact of life for many people. Yet despite this proliferation of tech there has not been an accompanying proliferation of technical knowledge. Writing in 2008 Kirschenbaum observed that for many, an intricate mechanism like the hard disk drive existed as a nearly mystical black box, an unseen archive rooted in arcane processes located within a computer’s case. From this perspective the idea that digital objects have a materiality seems strange and bizarre.
As the saying goes “after a point, sufficiently advanced science becomes indistinguishable from magic.”

Despite the fact that you can’t physically hold something like an iTunes playlist, Kirschenbaum argues that, in light of computer forensics and textual analysis we can begin to excavate its very material components. This is basically to say that Kirschenbaum argues that digital objects have materiality and that they are not ephemeral. Kirschenbaum also argues that the idea of new media’s ephemerality stems from what he terms a medial ideology, an ideology which has substituted disseminating dense and obscure technical knowledge for more digestible conceits. I won’t pretend to have understood most of the technical work that Kirschenbaum performed in this book as critical media theory and computer science are subjects far outside of my wheelhouse, but I will try to outline three of the key concepts that he illustrates in this book as best I can: formal materiality, forensic materiality, and medial ideology.

Forensic and Formal Materiality

For Kirschenbaum simply saying that digital objects are material is insufficient and that in order to adequately illustrate this concept there are two distinct forms of digital materiality: one which emphasizes the nitty-gritty physicality and durability of data and another which emphasizes the role of formal processes within a computational system that influence and affect the way that users can and cannot interact with data. As the term suggests, forensic materiality has its roots in computer forensics, a field of computer science which deals with data preservation, extraction, recovery, and interpretation (generally undertaken with an investigative and legal purpose but not solely limited to those roles). Kirschenbaum notes that “at the applied level, computer forensics depends upon the behaviors and physical properties of various computational storage media.” In this light data, and data storage media, possess materiality at the microscopic scale of bits, infinitesimally small but nonetheless physical markers of data’s presence. Through the use of advanced Magnetic Microscopes, investigators can trace the surfaces of storage media to find erase patterns to determine whether data has been tampered with. While such methods are one element of computer forensics, Kirschenbaum also highlights the role of internal processes in preserving and proliferating data, and how an investigation of those processes illustrates formal materiality. At this level data’s materiality is expressed through the use of specific processes or instruments that allow a user to peer under a computational system’s hood so to speak. Things like accessing an image file’s metadata or mining a disk image of an old game both require the user to employ specific programs or processes. In both forms of materiality, the common thread is that data, despite its supposed volatility and impermanence, is surprisingly durable.

Medial Ideology

So why is it then, if digital objects can be considered material, that ideas of digital objects’ ephemerality have taken on such resonance in academic and cultural circles? Kirschenbaum argues that this is in part a result of Western consumer culture, as tech companies, scholars, and users articulated a vision of information and information storage that obscured both the physical and intellectual labor that goes into producing digital objects, as well as their actual functional processes. While authors like William Gibson may have put forward their own literary ideas about ethereal concepts like “cyberspace,” Kirschenbaum also notes that over time efforts by developers to optimize user experience lead to a process which continually rendered technical knowledge unnecessary for users to effectively use their computers and digital products. In practice and in discourse, technological advancements between the 1980s and early 2000s have rendered the labor of textual production “functionally invisible.” What is more, to Kirschenbaum this process has by no means been reversed, and despite ongoing work by new media scholars to counter it, modern culture remains under the thrall of this ideology.

Why is it important to view the digital in material terms? What do we lose by allowing ourselves to accept the idea that digital objects and processes are ephemeral? While he offers an extensive critique of our understanding of materiality and the digital, Kirschenbaum’s book is clearly written for a specialist audience. Part of the appeal that the conceits of medial ideology proposes is that they simplify complex systems and technology to a level that is more easily digested by non-specialists. How can we strike a balance between teaching people about such systems without falling prey to overly-reductive simplifications?

3 Replies to “Digital Detectives, Materiality, and Medial Ideology – Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms”

  1. Thanks, Sean, for explaining the main takeaways of Kirschenbaum’s dense monster of a text. I thought his attention to the role of storage as both cultural and material was interesting in the discussion of material and digital. Things like USBs or IPods or laptops are physical accessories, however they remain locked until they’re accessed with a compatible machine. This reminds me of Arms’s and Fleischhauer’s article–as well as TAGOKOR–about the difficult nature of creating sustainable formats and storage when everything is constantly changing.

    I think the importance of thinking of digital as material comes from the value we assign to physical materials as vectors of history. If the wear on physical objects reveals something about its history, the same is true for digital materials in terms of how the files are stored and manipulated.

  2. Thank you Sean for breaking Kirschenbaum down into digestible pieces. I agree with Haley, physical objects are priced for their connection to the past, which is why they are so heavily emphasized in museums and historic spaces. By thinking of the digital as material we add legitimacy to its value. Since digital material is relatively so new, it is difficult to grasp and in certain situations explain because it is specialized instead of common knowledge. Kirschenbaum’s book is written for a specific audience, but I do not think the information needs to be overly simplified. Diagrams and pictures, like Kirschenbaum used, are helpful if implemented properly. By using more material terminology the digital can be brought out of the unknowns in the screen and better understood by non-specialists.

  3. Sean, your last question is a really important one, and one that’s not unique to technical or scientific disciplines. I don’t have a complete answer to your question, but I think a good first step in teaching about something unfamiliar and complex is by contextualizing why a concept matters and grounding it in something familiar and relatable. I struggled through most of Kirschenbaum’s introduction, but felt like something really clicked starting on pages 21-23 when he gives us the bottom line of why the concepts you’ve outlined so well in your post matter: “the challenges of digital preservation…while massively technical, to be sure, are also ultimately – and profoundly – social.” I found that, as well as his acknowledgement of a relatable sentiment about new media (“None of this stuff is going to last, so why bother?”), a helpful entry point.

    I think the more that professionals (whether historians, journalists, or computer scientists) communicate clearly about what their work entails and what goes into creating an output, the better positioned we all are to not only understand and appreciate the expertise behind the media we consume or the products we use, but also think critically about their potential shortcomings.

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