Social Memory and Digital History

Social Memory

In Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, the authors define social memory as “how and what societies remember.” On the grand scale, social memory is essentially the continuity between generations that allow civilizations to persist over time. It’s a way for people to transmit traditions, ideas, beliefs and agreements. Scholars of social memory argue that it is consciously sustained through the efforts of individuals, groups, and institutions. For example, when people visit museums, they view the artifacts or artwork there through a framework created by social memory.

The authors argue that there are two different types of social memory. The first is “formal memory,” and is the type the above-mentioned visitors to the museum are engaged it. Formal social memory is how history and art institutions most often engage with social memory, and it focuses on accuracy, integrity, and the object in its fixed form.

However, there is also “informal memory” which is distributed through popular forms of remembering. People engaged in informal social memory, the authors write, “often [emphasize] updating or recreating the cultural object as a way of keeping it alive.” We can find examples of this in Dragan Espenschied’s website emulator project, or the way Cope and Chan worked to acquire the Planetary App not as a graphic design object but as a “living” system of interact-able code. While these tactics might not result in the most “accurate” representation of a digital artifact, they allow those interested in them to interact with and learn from them in ways they could not if they were frozen in time.

The Digital History Link

Why do we care about social memory in a class on digital history? Mostly because digital culture threatens to disrupt it. With new digital technology, cultural objects that used to be physical (artwork, newspapers, letters, books) are now increasingly digital challenging the stability of their future preservation. Not only that, but the way we interact with these objects, through documentation, archives, storage, and management systems are also increasingly digital. This causes concrete concerns because of how quickly digital technology grows and changes. Saving a piece of hardware is not enough to preserve a digital object, because in the not-so-distant future, that hardware may be unusable. The same issue can apply to software – in the Planetary App example, an iOS update caused the Planetary to become nonfunctional on iPads. Digital objects, then, change the way we have to think about preservation.

We’ve read a number of articles so far this semester discussing how challenging the preservation of digital objects is – the various ways they deteriorate, how important file-types are and more. Sometimes the authors give practical advice, for example, chose a file type that is especially popular, because it will be more stable. What I appreciated most about our readings in Re-Collection was the concrete steps the authors suggested as possible ways forward in collecting and preserving digital culture. These steps, importantly, were not just for archivists or curators: options for lawyers, dealers, sponsors and academics were all included. Some suggestions are seem relatively easy, especially when you’re not the one doing them, such as the one asking archivists to modernize metadata standards. Others are big asks, such as suggesting institutions begin building repositories of digital culture. As we begin to confront the realities of preservation in a digital age these suggestions – both big and small – are important starting places.

So what do you think about social memory and digital objects? Are there ways to keep digital objects alive without sacrificing accurate representations of their original state? Are there ways that we as public historians can contribute to these conversations? What do you think of the twelve suggestions the authors offered to “future-proof contemporary culture?” Do you have a hot new idea on preserving digital culture based on this reading?

Changes Over Time- Defining Tagokor and Analog

Since the 1970s, the definition analog or analogue developed out of interests in digital technology instead of the actual engineering itself. It’s grown to refer to a condition based on the cultural reaction to digital technologies rather than its technocultural relationship to nature. This, in turn, has resulted in a popular novel concept that analog is everything not digital. Jonathon Sterne, an expert in media and cultural studies, reveals why branding analog to compose of all things not-digital is a dangerous road to trot.

Broadening the reach of what falls under analog prevents proper attention going into the various histories and purposes involved. Just discussing an analog-digital relationship without breaking down the influential histories does not illustrate how the definition of that relationship was formed. How the term analog changes over time are very similar to TAGOKOR’s journey to NARA.

Though TAGOKOR’s histories may slightly differ from defining objects as analog or digital, the influence of periodic variables matters in shaping purpose. Sterne and Bailey illustrate in their work how cultural conditions and histories mold how digital objects are defined and why it matters. Why should we care what is considered a digital system and if the definition evolves over time due to more progressive forms of information sharing and preservation?

Although Sterne offers more word of caution in his article, it’s safe to say Bailey’s study of the custodial and cultural histories of TAGOKOR is also a warning to the readers. His attention to the many agencies and transfers of TAGOKOR draws attention to the stages and reconstituting of records before they are made available to the public. By the time the records are published, they are so far removed from the original piece due to so many interferences and set purposes. Eventually, there are two histories of the digital records, “elision and elaboration- a history separate from the literal preservation of the bit sequence itself.” Whether it’s the crowded process of publishing digital record systems from the Korean war or establishing what is considered analog, it’s apparent that there are several factors in play that determine what defines their history.

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?

How to Deep Fry a Meme (aka glitch a file)

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:

This is my initial image, which is currently in .jpeg format.

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:

I got this alert a bunch when trying to convert the image back to a .jpg and reopen it on my computer
I was finally able to open the image in the photos application, 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:

Honestly, I kind of like it more than the original

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.

Mystery_House.dsk: What It Is and Why It Matters

What is it?

Mystery House is a primitive interactive fiction created by Ken and Roberta Williams for the Apple II, one of the first highly successful mass-produced home computers introduced in 1977. In interactive fiction, the player has the ability to influence the outcome of the story. This type of fiction was particularly appealing to the program’s creators. They first conceived the idea for the Mystery House after playing a text-adventure game called Colossal Cave Adventure. Roberta liked the concept of a text-based interactive story, but thought that players would enjoy seeing images to go along with the text. She designed the Mystery House, basing it off Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None while her husband Ken developed the software.

When Mystery House was released in 1980, the game was extremely popular. It was the first adventure game to use computer graphics, rather than just text. On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line) sold more than 10,000 copies in a niche and burgeoning market for home computer software. In 1987, Mystery House became public domain and modifiable versions of the interactive fiction, known as Mystery House Taken Over, have been placed in the public domain as well.

A Few Brief Comments on Downloading and Playing

Downloading and playing Mystery House is challenging. At first, I attempted to play online by clicking the link on the Mystery House Taken Over webpage.

The directions indicate that you will be able to play the game online with a Java update. When that didn’t work, I attempted to download it. In order to download, you have to download a Glulx interpreter in order to run the program. A Glulx interpreter allows the game to be played on any device, mac or windows, without having to alter the original source code of the game. Unfortunately, my attempts to download the interpreter failed. Instead, I was able to demo the game on the Internet Archive.

After a brief set of instructions, the game begins outside a Victorian mansion.

As Laura has walked us through the purpose of the game and the various walkthroughs and maps that exist to guide players, I will discuss a few challenges I faced when playing. I began first without a walkthrough but soon realized how difficult it was to navigate using only two word commands containing a single noun and verb. I took an embarrassingly long time just to navigate up the stair and into the hallway because the noun and verb used must match one of the 70 preprogrammed commands. For example, in many cases, you can’t move forward unless you first type the command “open door” or you indicate which direction you wish to travel in. You also have to give very specific commands to interact with items.  If you want to pick an item up, you must use the word “take” and you must recognize and name that item correctly. For example, there is a knife in the sink but you must say “take butterknife” rather than the simpler “take knife.”

Compared to video games today, Mystery House leaves a lot to be desired. But at the time, the game was an innovation. While the game itself fascinated novice home computer owners, the underlying programming attracted the attention of both programmers and hackers. Kirschenbaum will similarly find interest in the underlying components of the Mystery House disk.

Kirschenbaum’s Forensic Walkthrough

The author’s walkthrough of the Mystery House is “a media-specific analysis” or “a close reading of the text that is also sensitive to the minute particulars of its medium and the idiosyncratic production and reception histories of the work” (129). In simpler terms, he examines the Mystery House disk like a bibliographer or a paleographer might examine a fifteenth century manuscript. Kirschenbaum uses the hex editor to examine the foundational binary data that makes up Mystery_House.dsk and discovers that there is more to the disk than just the game itself. For example, he ascertains that prior to the game being downloaded onto the disk, evidence from two other games could be found underneath it. From this information, he can extrapolate information in the same way that a historian can extrapolate information from handwriting or ink type on a material object. 

He concludes that while computers give the “illusion of immateriality” with their ability to correct themselves within a millisecond of a discrepancy in data being discovered, the mathematical precision of measurements, and impression of infinite space (unlike material texts such as newspapers, TV, and records), the digital environment is one of formal materiality. This has important implications for the way scholars conduct research on digital material. Kirschenbaum describes it as difference: using the hex editor gives the researcher a different view or perspective on an object that a simple textual analysis would not reveal. The use of the hex editor on the Mystery House disk was to “serve as a primer for bibliographical or forensic practice in future studies” (158). Not only will understanding the foundational materiality of a disk assist in preserving and storing digital information, it will be just as important as more traditional methods like paleography in analyzing materials.