Glitching can give us deeper understandings of digital objects

Back in 2012, our fearless leader Professor Owens wrote this cool blog post explaining why glitching digital objects can give us a deeper understanding of their value and how to break them down.

As he observed, digital objects are encoded bits of information on some sort of medium designed for a software that can read it. But, if we play with those bits of information and break those digital objects down a bit, we can grasp a better understanding of the objects internal structure, how the computer understands it, and what the original object was meant for.

There are three ways to break down and alter digital files to give us a more multidimensional, ‘non-essentialist’ read of digital objects.

First you can alter an mp3. or wav. file that you either previously had on your computer or downloaded online and alter its file extension to .txt. I did this with both a mp3. of an Oral History audio I have from a few years back and then I tried it with the track “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton the Musical.

This is from the Oral History interview I conducted with a woman involved in a student led campaign at Duquesne University to save the school from financial collapse in the 1970s. The text is pretty unintelligible. This audio was created on a recorder and downloaded into Audacity so its format might not be super advanced.
This one is the track from Hamilton, still pretty unintelligible but here if we zoom in we can see text that says: (Original Broadway Cast Record):soar2data0Oringinal Broadway Cast of Hamilton and other tidbits of information. This is a professional recording so it kind of makes more sense that some of the metadata is recognizable here.

You can then try and alter the same file from a .txt to a .raw file which should give you a pixelated image of what the audio looks like. If you do this for .wav and mp3 files you should see a noticeable difference and get a feel for patterns in the data. However, my Macbook for some unexplainable reason can not read these files once I change them to the .raw format. No matter what files I altered to this format I got the same error notice.

Boo you Macbook
Sad face 🙁

I used both the Preview application and IPhoto apps on my Mac and got the same notice both times. I’m not sure if it’s just an issue with my Mac or Mac in general, but I’m hoping one of my co-practicum bloggers can give you a better idea of what this looks like. If not you can get a glimpse of it in Prof. Owens blog here.

My Mac did however allow me to try out the third glitching technique, which is to take a digital image in .jpg format and change its file extension to .txt remove some of the info, revert it back to .jpg and open it back up to see how your changes altered the image.

The images below are the original and two glitched versions of a photo of the narrator I interviewed a few years ago.

the original

The first level of damage which has made the image darker and kind of duplicates it?
In this third level of damage the image now has a magenta tone and we can see how it’s been duplicated and zoomed out? Cool stuff honestly.

By looking at these glitched files we can see how the original file was damaged by removing or altering its original data. We can also see how the image was intended to be viewed and how the data works to produce it and what happens when some of it is taken away.

In conclusion, glitching is really cool because it helps us read objects “against the grain” if you will– to see the digital object from multiple dimensions and perspectives to better understand it. It’s also just kind of fun and has led to some new pathways in the creation of digital art.

But to all my digital humanitarians out there, what do you think we can stand to learn from glitching digital artifacts and how might we use this technique in our work?

3 Replies to “Glitching can give us deeper understandings of digital objects”

  1. Like Professor Owens mentions in his post, I think the biggest thing we can learn from glitching digital artifacts is what structures underlie what you see on the surface. In your example, this is the difference between a .mp3 file and a .txt file, and how computers process each to give you the final product of a song. However, I think my largest concern is what to do when a file is accidentally distorted, and how archivists may recover such files, especially when they may not know what the original file may have looked like.

  2. I agree with you Sierra. I found the article and your post on glitching really interesting because it calls into question the assumptions we make about storing and preserving digital material. If digital documents are corrupted in the digital format, how can that information be retrieved? In a way, it is similar to the questions brought up around TAGOKOR. By attempting to digitize the material, things were lost and unfortunately the physical copies were destroyed. Having a better understanding of how digital materials work at a foundational level will go a long way towards improving out understanding of digital archives and preservation.

  3. It’s interesting how much technology seems to be becoming more and more central to the humanities (which I know, is probably the point of this class..). When I was a young budding historian at age 10 reading books like A Patriot Lad of Old Cape Cod, I in no way considered that technology, and the use of computers would become central to preserving the historical objects that I cherished and wished to preserve. Maybe it was because I was 10 and used the computer solely for AIM and Webkinz, but nonetheless I think what I most learned from glitching files and doing this weeks readings (in companion with all our other reading this semester) is that that the profession of historical preservation, historical study, museum studies, etc. will need to be eventually reframed with digital techniques–such as knowing how to glitch a file, with any luck un-glitch it–at the center of study. I don’t know, perhaps I’m getting a little philosophic because I’m graduating from undergrad in a month and have spent the past few weeks reflecting on my education….

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