Understanding Digital Content: Kirschenbaum

Is digital content ephemeral? Matthew G. Kirschenbaum challenges this assumption in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination to prove the materiality of digital media content.  In his interdisciplinary study of new media—grounded in comparative media, bibliography, textual studies, book studies, and computer science, specifically computer forensics—Kirschenbaum  delves into the “ephemeral nature of memory and media” arguing that digital media content is physical, durable, and individualized rather than ephemeral, unstable, and identical (15). A lot of the more technical aspects of this book were over my head, but I will do my best to explain some of the key concepts presented in Mechanisms.

Screen Essentialism, Medial Ideology, and Computer Forensics

Nick Montfort’s notion of “screen essentialism” refers to the “prevailing bias in new media studies toward display technologies that would have been unknown to most computer users before the mid-1970s” (31).  While most new media studies focus on the “phenomenological manifestation of the application or digital event on the screen,” Kirschenbaum argues that “we must be able to identify and retrieve all its digital components”—the code, hardware, storage devices, etc. (4).  Similarly, Kirschenbaum discusses Lev Manovich’s argument that new media is “characterized by a ‘database paradigm’ manifested in the modular nature of a digital production’s constituent objects and the lack of an essential narrative or sequential structure for how those objects are accessed and manipulated” (77).  In short, we must “follow the bits all the way down to the metal” to truly grasp the nature of digital content (xiv).  Going hand-in-hand with screen essentialism, Kirschenbaum’s “medial ideology” “substitutes popular representations of a medium…for a more comprehensive treatment of the material particulars of a given technology” (36).  

Mechanisms is distinct in its application of computer forensics to new media.  Applying computer forensics to electronic textual studies challenges the “supposed ephemerality, fungibility, and homogeneity” of new media (19). A forensic approach reveals concepts that provide new ways of approaching electronic textuality—trace evidence and individualization. These concepts reveal that electronic data assumes visible and material form through processes of instrumentation that suggest phenomena we call virtual are in fact physical phenomena lacking the appropriate mediation to supplement wave-length optics; that is, the naked eye” (19).

Storage and the Hard Drive

A significant portion of Mechanisms is dedicated to storage.  Storage media takes various forms including MP3s and iPods, floppy disks, CDs, USB drives, and the hard drive.  Kirschenbaum urges the reader to think of “storage media as a kind of writing machine” ( 19).  He calls for a “machine reading” of the hard drive in which the “object is not the text but a mechanism or device” (88).  Kirschenbaum stresses the importance of understanding the function of the hard drive and recognizing it as a physical phenomenon rather than an abstraction: “Absent are the range of small, localized glitches of characteristic of other media—the typo in the newspaper, the scratch on the vinyl record, snow on the TV channel—that remind us of their mundane materiality” (135).

What is Materiality in an Electronic Environment? Forensic and Formal Materiality

Kirschenbaum’s theory of electronic materiality distinguishes between “forensic materiality” and “formal materiality.”  Forensic materiality is grounded in the principle of individualization—“the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike” (10).  Examples of forensic materiality include digital inscription, computation, and storage media. 

Formal materiality, a more abstract concept, refers to the “imposition of multiple relational computational states on a data set or digital object” (12).  Essentially, formal materiality can be understood as the manipulation of data and symbols in the digital environment.  Although data and symbols—Kirschenbaum uses an example of an atom versus a bit—are not physical in terms of having mass, we should still see them as having a material presence.  Furthermore, the process of setting and resetting symbols creates “layers” that are both “relative” and “self-contained” (12).

It is important to note that Kirschenbaum warns against associating forensic and formal materiality with hardware and software respectively.  Rather, “forensic and formal materiality are perhaps better brought to rest on the twin textual and technological bases of inscription (storage) and transmission (or multiplication)” that shed light on the “duality of a mechanism as both a product and a process” (15).

Kirschenbaum demonstrates the relationship between forensic and formal materiality in his “walk-through” using a hex editor to view the Mystery House ROM. 

Allographic and Autographic Computation

Properties of digital computation are what account for the “immaterial nature of digital expression” (137).  Nelson Goodman claims that “allographic objects, such as written texts, fulfill their ontology in reproduction, while autographic objects, such as a painting, betray their ontology in reproduction” (133).  Kirschenbaum illustrates this concept by comparing a copy of the Mona Lisa to a copy of the book Frankenstein—while the former is a “copy of an acknowledged original” [autographic] the latter is “a perfectly valid way of experiencing the work” [allographic] (133-134).

In other terms, allographic does not demand perfect—only success within a given range of variation.  With autographic, however, there is one condition for success and no tolerance for variation (136).  Kirschenbaum uses the example of placing tokens within the same square versus on the exact same spot on a chessboard.


“…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).

All of this is to say that digital media is complex.  It is both a product and a process.  It is ephemeral in nature yet material in practice.  It is stable yet volatile.  It is kind of imaginary yet locatable and measurable.  Behind every piece of digital media is an intricate material matrix.  And we must have “awareness of the mechanism” to fully understand the physicality, nature, and significance of digital content (88).

What did you think of Mechanisms?  Why is understanding the materiality of digital content important? What are the implications of viewing new media as ephemeral? How do you think these concepts relate to our work as historians and public historians? —for example, new media being actively stored in archives and museums?  Thanks for reading!

7 Replies to “Understanding Digital Content: Kirschenbaum”

  1. Thank you for your post! it really helped breakdown this portion of the reading which I admit I had some difficulty wrapping my head around. Though after some thought I realize that the importance behind understanding the materiality of digital content is centered its utilization. In order to effectively create digital content, one must truly understand the ins and outs of that content so they know their material boundaries as well as all opportunity for taking advantage of all of digital media’s strengths. For example something as simple as understanding storage is immensely important before undertaking a project that may greatly exceed the available storage space and thus limit your final product.

  2. I agree with Claire! Thanks for summarizing all of the content so clearly and succinctly.

    It does seem important to understand materiality of the digital in order to understand how people organize, think about, and experience digital resources over time. Some of the concepts were also difficult to wrap my head around (so this might not be a comparable example), but the explanation of “autographic computation” reminded me of how people use emulators to play video games made for older models of consoles that are no longer in production. Recognizing that the relationship between the game and the console or emulator seems similar to the example that you gave from the book about viewing a copy of the Mona Lisa or Frankenstein. Although the copies/iterations of the original are a valid way of experiencing the works, I think it would be interesting to see how interaction changes based on the experience with the original versus experience the copies. Maybe it could bring about different ways for historians to interpret or present concepts about digital resources?

    1. I love your idea about measuring experiences with the original versus with copies and I think it ties into this week as well–digital archives. While the archivist community is very tied to this idea of “original,” the digital humanities community is not necessarily, so it would be interesting to see if there are significant differences between those experiences.

  3. Like my classmates, I struggled a bit with the technical and philosophical aspects of this reading. I so appreciate your breakdown and dedication to helping us understand it – it was very helpful! While overwhelmed I definitely left this reading for an appreciation for those who work closely with concepts like computer forensics and understanding this aspects on the nitty gritty level. I feel excited about the humanities continued understanding of the materiality of digital and the ways in which digital resources will continue to expand and be utilized in the future. It brings up a lot of questions about how researchers in the future will ‘read’ digital sources in the sense of materiality of digital sources (i.e. reading code, storage evolution, etc.) to understand the history of this time period, not only historiographically speaking (understanding how historians of this time used digital sources) but also just in understanding 21st century history.

    1. I think your comment about how “the digital” will be understood historiographically is really interesting. I think Kirschenbaum’s comparison of traditional writing and textual methods–paper, books, etc.–to the computer at least gives us an idea of what he thinks. He urges the reader to view the computer and storage media as “writing tools” which is something I never even thought about before!

  4. As everyone else has said, thank you for your breakdown Rebecca! You really helped me process the material with your blog. To my point in class, I think the theory in this book really helped me understand the significance of the materiality of digital sources, digital tools, etc. that come up in later articles for this week in terms of preservation of digital content, and the impact of different types of preservation over time. It’s good to have a theoretical base for understanding the concerns of say the Library of Congress article that gives practical understanding of how to preserve digital history.

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