Kirschenbaum. (2012). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

In his book, Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum writes about the materiality of electronic texts. One of the primary questions he works to answer is, “In what, I then asked, does the materiality of electronic texts consist?” Part of how he answers this question is the distinction he makes between forensic materiality and formal materiality. He describes forensic materiality as “rest[ing] upon the principle of individualization (basic to modern forensic science and criminalistics), the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike.” (10) “Formal materiality thus follows as the name I give to the imposition of multiple relational computational states on a data set or digital object” (12). He builds on these ideas throughout the first three chapters of the book.

In chapter one, ‘‘Every Contact Leaves a Trace’’: Storage, Inscription, and Computer Forensics, he delves deeper into explaining the physicality of electronic texts. Kirschenbaum starts the chapter by describing DoD guidelines for handling digital media to highlight their materiality. He positions this in contrast to academics’ focus on the “ephemeral” aspects of electronic texts. This is at the core of the chapter – pushing back on “Screen Essentialism,” or “the prevailing bias in new media studies toward display technologies that would have been unknown to most computer users before the mid-1970s…” (31) Throughout, he comes back to his central focus on physical reality of what seems only virtually represented. He makes his argument across many fronts. He discusses computer forensics, MFM (which helps us understand what he calls the “bit-level individualization” (68). To illustrate how developments in storage capacity and mechanisms have contributed to greater sense of abstraction, he tells a story about how he modified floppy disks so he could save more images of koalas. 

Kirschenbaum spends the next chapter outlining the significance of the hard drive to explain what makes it a writing machine. He argues that the hard drive is often perceived as a black box because it is not visible, which is also evident in the language used to describe how we interact with hard drives. He says, ‘[t]he commonplace is to speak about writing a file to a disk.. because we cannot see anything on its surface, the disk is semantically refigured as a volumetric receptacle, a black box with a closed lid. If we were writing on the disk we would be able to see the text visibly, like a label” (87). He ends his discussion of hard drives with a story about the first time he remembers saving something to a computer for the first time, which, he argues, made it a more “individualized entity” (109). He says this shift to saving items to a device revolutionized how we interact with electronic texts. 

He then turns his attention to the question, “Can theory or criticism of born-digital objects benefit from attention to the minute particulars of archival data, and if so, in what do those details consist?” To answer this, he explores a disk image of the online game Mystery House, to do a forensic analysis. This is where Kirschenbaum gets even more technical. He started his walk through of the program using the program FishWings to look at the Apple II disk image and is able to show every byte on the disk. He goes into much greater detail, ultimately to show that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality” (135).

What did I miss? What other insights does Kirschenbaum’s focus on the materiality of electronic texts provide? I found this text challenging – forcing me to consider the electronic devices and tools I use on a daily basis in new ways. Given the ongoing pandemic, I have had a difficult time focusing on work and coursework. Wishing everyone safety and health – please don’t hesitate to be in touch if you wan to chat.

9 Replies to “Kirschenbaum. (2012). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.”

  1. Hi Elizabeth, thanks so much for your post, which helps shape Kirschenbaum’s text into something a little more concise and digestible. Something that occurred to me while reading your post is the notion (that I’ve taken entirely for granted) about “saving” something–whether a file, changes to the hard drive, etc.–and in doing so, creating an “individualized entity.” Trying to remember a time before the ability to “save your work” seems nearly impossible, though I know I lived through some of those times. In fact, it seems that the ability to do so must have been revolutionary to digital creators–once the capacity to overwrite, or save, or modify reached/was understood by the general public, digital creators then had to create the original material (whatever that may be), and then account for the myriad ways in which users would and could modify it. The result, then, was creativity on the part of both users and creators (and were the users, then, also creators?!) that has resulted in games from Mystery House to the latest installment of Medal of Honor (or whatever the kids are playing these days) which allow for increasingly complex interactions. I’m not sure how much of this was intelligible, just know that your post and Kirschenbaum’s text, both, have given me a lot to think about during this quarantine.

    1. That’s really interesting, Carmen! I hadn’t really thought about saving something and thus creating a unique entity. I wonder what this means for Google docs which are constantly saving and the history of which we can revisit. Maybe it’s highlighting the different version of the doc as unique entities (I’m not sure this is intelligible…)

  2. Thanks for a great post, Elisabeth! Kirschenbaum’s musings on digital objects reminded me a lot of Gitelman’s points on how we can see digital documents as true documents. Kirschenbaum argues that digital materials, despite their ephemerality, have materiality; similarly, Gitelman posits that, while not made of paper, digital documents like PDFs actually represent the truest documents of them all. I think these authors are doing important work in arguing for the validity of digital things. In history, we have the tendency to view physical objects/documents as historical fact. I wonder how this will change as historians begin to study the digital age. Will they, following Kirschenbaum and Gitelman’s lead, accord equal value to digital objects?

    1. Thanks for helping me see these great connections! I think the question you raise is particularly relevant to historians who study what we’re experiencing right now with this covid-19 pandemic. Tweets, emails, blog posts, facebook posts will all be primary sources to mine.

  3. Great post! Several of the quotes you pulled out are things I’ve got underlined multiple times in my own copy of Kirschenbaum’s book.

    Thanks to everyone for working through the book too! It’s dense and challenging on a few fronts but it remains one of the most important works for picking apart and coming to understand digital content as a form of primary source.

    As has come out through discussion already, a critical aspect of Kirschenbaum’s work is respecting and coming to understand the layers of computing systems that make digital media work. As the example from the DoD hard drives show, all digital content is on some level analog as well. There are markings encoded on a medium and there are layers of software that turn that encoded information into digital content.

    I’d also stress that it’s important to unpack a bit of what exactly happened when Kirschenbaum used the hex editor to view the Mystery House ROM. He talks a bit in that example about how he found text that didn’t exist inside the game on that disk. Can someone walk through how that was possible and what that says about the nature of digital content?

    1. Hi Elisabeth! Thanks for this post. It definitely made Kirschenbaum’s arguments more palatable. I appreciate how his ontological approach to materiality highlights the importance of the composition of materiality and frames that as the foundation of an object’s identity. The description of the relationship between forensic and formal materiality underscores how they require further analysis in order to understand how they serve as basic dimensions of materiality. I was also interested in his approach to the game Mystery House. On pg. 129 Kirschebbaum addresses the multiple levels of engagement that go into playing that game.

      1. Hi Leah! Thanks for your comment! I found his explanations of formal vs. forensic materiality enlightening (and confusing at first!)

    2. Thanks, Trevor! I think the hex editor allowed the Kirschenbaum to see old games on the disk image that was not overwritten. I think this shows us that a supposed copy of the game includes more than just that game. I think this gets back to the point about how physically unique digital objects are, maybe?

  4. Great post, Elisabeth! I also thought this read was particularly dense and took me way longer to read than I initially thought. Despite this, I found his study to be very interesting and it certainly re-framed the way I think about digital artifacts. It is strange to think that Tweets and Facebook posts might be the memoirs and diary entries of 50 years from now. But unlike a diary/memoir, there is a lot of inadvertent information included in the footprint of a digital source.

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