Okay, so glitching a file is a little more complicated and involved than deep frying a meme, which can be done simply by going to https://deepfriedmemes.com/, and apply various filters to make an image look distorted. But glitching a file is a lot like creating a homegrown deep fried meme, the old fashioned way.
There is a lot of merit to knowing how to glitch a file, as Trever Owens points out in his article “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps.” Owens quotes Scott Fitzgerald, who states that it’s important to know how to glitch a file because it helps you to understand the underlying structures which make up the file itself. In other words, knowing how to glitch a file is a lot like knowing how to fix a running toilet. Toilets are something we all use everyday, and also something we often take for granted (or at least I did until I moved in to my current apartment which has a chronically problematic toilet). Knowing how a toilet actually works is important in diagnosing the cause the the running, and ultimately fixing it. Files are somewhat the same. We often take the various extensions, .pdf, .mp3, .docx, etc. for granted. As Owens points out this can lead to “Screen Essentialism”:
“The heart of the critique is that digital objects aren’t just what they appear to be when they are rendered by a particular piece of software in a particular configuration. They are, at their core, bits of encoded information on media. While that encoded information may have one particular intended kind of software to read or present the information we can learn about the encoded information in the object by ignoring how we are supposed to read it. We can change a file extension and read against the intended way of viewing the object.”Trevor Owens, “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps.”
So, in this post I will take you through the steps of glitching an image file, because as public historians its important to have deeper understanding of what makes up a file, rather than just taking it for what it is on the surface. To demonstrate this process I am going to stick with my meme theme by glitching *cough* deep frying *cough* a photo from the “they did surgery on a grape” meme because its one of my favorites, and also super obscure so maybe in 50 years someone will stumble across this post and write a paper on the cultural importance of “they did surgery on a grape” meme in 2019.
Anyways, back to glitching the file. To begin here is my original image:
Now to glitch the image file, change the extension to .txt. I’m using preview on a mac, but the steps should be roughly the same no matter what kind of set up you are using. Find the .jpg file in finder, right click, and select “get info”
Once in this information pane, change the file extension from .jpg to .txt:
The file will then convert into a text file:
Delete some of the code in here, and follow the same steps to turn the file back into a .jpg. This is where I ran into some issues. I had trouble finding a happy balance between recognizably glitching the image and destroying it so much my computer was unable to open it. Eventually I got the file to open with the photos app, but it was just white:
Alas, now that I was familiar process, I wanted to keep trying. Perhaps because I used a meme I got off the internet the process didn’t go as smoothly as it normally does. So I tried again with a more normal .jpg image of my cat, Omen. Here is the original image:
Here’s the image after following the steps above, deleting a small chunk of the .txt file:
And finally, here’s the photo again, now substantially degraded:
Overall, this has been a fun and interesting process. I can see how glitching an image file can very much be an art form–and now that I understand how it works (kind of), I feel like I have a deeper understanding of born digital objects. They are far more than then what you see on the surface.
I wonder what this means for the future of things like digital libraries. It’s so easy to corrupt a file, how can we know if the image in the library is the original? What does it even mean to be an original file? If someone such as myself can learn how distort an image in one afternoon, who’s to say someone couldn’t hack the server of a digital library and corrupt historical images which no longer exist physically–how do we get those images back? I did some quick searches and there are ways to undo damage, but I feel as though digital files are just as vulnerable as their physical counterparts, whereas before this process I did not. Which really proves Owens and Fitzgeralds point that its important to know how these files work on the backside to better preserve and study them on the front side.
I started this process excited to “deep fry” an image, but now I see there is a lot more at play here than making a funny meme. Perhaps the whole trend of deep frying an image for comedic value says something about our growing technologically driven society–or maybe I’m being a little too philosophical. Regardless, I’m glad I got to learn more about this process, now I know how to fix a running toilet AND glitch a file.