Reading Response Post- Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

The book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination written by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum tells the story of digital storage. Much of his books talks about electronic writing which at times is very had to understand especially with his style of writing which uses a plethora of parentheses. For this class, Prof. Owens has asked us to focus on the first 3 chapters of the book, pages 1-158. This response post will break the reading down by chapter and help to give a broad overview of main themes and ideas as well as focusing on the many, many definitions and categories of media storage that Kirschenbaum writes about throughout the book.

Introduction: Pages 1-23

In the introduction, Kirschenbaum goes into great detail to set the reader up with a foundation of understanding about storage especially with the terms he uses. He makes it very clear what terms to focus on to help set you up for the rest of the book as well as outlining how the rest of the book will be laid out and talked about. Some key terms he uses in the introduction are as follows:

Physical Objects– “‘signs inscribed on a medium’ — for example, the flus reversals recorded on magnetic tape” (3).

Logical Objects– “data as it is recognized and interpreted by particular processes and applications software; for example, the binary composition of a Word .DOC file” (3).

Conceptual Objects– “”‘the object we deal with in the real world,’ such as a digital photograph as it appears prima facie on the screen” (3).

Materiality– which the author breaks down into two factors as forensic materiality and formal materiality. Forensic materiality is looking at the actual make up of an object to see that no too objects are exactly alike and that this can extend to the digital world (10). While formal materiality is to “manipulate symbols” in a computer instead of physical matter (11). While these terms are harder to understand in the pretense of the substantial chapters, the background sets one up for success.

He asks a major question in the introduction which helps to set up the book and establish why these terms are important, that question being, “In what… does the materiality of electronic texts consist?” Or in other words, are electronic texts a material object at all?

Chapter 1: “Every Contact Leaves a Trace”: Storage, Inscription, and Computer Forensics Pages 27-71

This chapter starts with talking about physical and logical objects and how those objects can have their data wiped or destroyed… but can it really? Kirschenbaum talks about different types of media storage like CD’s, Floppy Disks, USB thumb drives, and others to differentiate between kinds of digital storage, how they are used, and how protected they have to be to stay intact and readable. For instance, he writes about how CD’s have to be protected on the side that holds data much more than a thumb drive needs to be protected (32).

One really fascinating point he makes in this chapter is about how media storage keeps changing. Where it used to be very materialized (like stored in a floppy disk) it is now all very abstract with pie charts showing us how much space we have left rather than just buying more floppy disks for more space. Kirschenbaum write, “Greater and greater storage capacity will only serve further dematerialize the media as their finite physical boundaries slip past the point of any practical concern” (32).

He continues the chapter talking about the physicality of text and words once put into the digital framework. He compares this to a typewriter or a physically written document and how different these ideas of physicality are.

Kirschenbaum ends the chapter focusing on forensic materiality and how to retrieve “lost” data. He explains that this is mostly done by government agencies such as the FBI and the strategies in which they use to bring those files back to life. These include ephemerality (50-53), fungibility (53-56), and fixity and fluidity (56-58). Each way explains how one recovers files from a hard drive and how each file is unique even if it is a copy. he uses pictures of the zoomed in magnetic tape to show how each are different and to give a visual on his argument that everything is different.

Chapter 2: Extreme Inscription: A Grammatology of the Hard Drive Pages 73-110

Kirschenbaum starts chapter 2 talking about the make up for a hard drive and how it is used in a storage capacity. He then transitions into the history of the hard drive and how the first one was release at the World’s Fair and it was composed of a bunch of disks that would rotate to give you the data needed. It only had 5 megabytes of storage though (76-77). This machine, Kirschenbaum states, may have been one of the first digital libraries for holding and storing historical data.

Next, Kirschenbaum breaks down different terms used in computer computer and data science in terms of grammatology. These phrases are random access, signal processor, differential (and chronographic), volumetric, rationalized (and atomized), motion-dependent, planographic, and nonvolatile (and variable) (89-96). These explain how a computer storage system works on different levels.

He concludes the chapter focusing on email and printing storage. He goes over data points for how storage and date work from various authors, books, and articles.

Chapter 3: “An Old House with Many Rooms”: The Textual Forensics of Mystery_House.dsk Pages 111-158

This chapter takes a unique turn from the others as it starts with information and becomes a case study on the idea of storage while following the Mystery_House.dsk (.dsk is a disk if you were wondering because I sure was) game that was made for the Apple II computer. Kirschenbaum walks reader through the digital image of the file and what it looks like. This walk through helps to contextualize some of the points brought up in the book prior to this chapter.

Overall, this book is very hard to follow as someone with no prior computer background or knowledge. I do think his definitions are easy to follow and help with understanding some of the concepts, but this book is not made for the average person with no computer storage background.

Questions:

  1. How did this book get you thinking about storage and data?
  2. What is the difference between physical, logical, and conceptual objects? (3-4)
  3. What is storage? How can we use it to optimize our digital history projects now and in the future? (4-6)
  4. What is “materiality” and how does it evolve over the book? (9)
  5. What is the impact of erasing data? Does it ever really go away?
  6. What is “screen essentialism” and why is it significant to the book? (31)
  7. Why was the magnetic disk storage created? (84)
  8. What is a disk image and how is it different than what the words makes it out to be? (115)
  9. How might you use these storage data points to better secure your projects?
  10. What critiques do you have about the book?

-McKenna Crews

3 Replies to “Reading Response Post- Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum”

  1. Hi, Mckenna! I thought Chapter 1 was very interesting, especially when he discussed the different ways in which people have to protect their data. I never seemed to think that the variety of digital storage methods require different protection methods. I guess the
    “cloud” has really distorted my thinking and sense of security, since I know I always have backups of my files. But, it must have been really hard back then to not scratch a side of the CD or not lose the tiny USB!

    I also thought it was super interesting to learn about forensic materiality. I wonder if any museums or historians have had to contact the FBI and ask them to try to retrieve their lost data? Does it cost money for the historians? When does the FBI intervene? (does it have to be big national museums that have crucial information on the national government or can it be small ones too?)

    1. Hi Rachel!
      I felt like this book is soooo outdated now due to the cloud like you mentioned. I had never thought about this and I feel like this was so hard for me to grasp because I haven’t had to really use a flash drive or anything like that. Those are really good questions. I know there is a website that can take you back to websites that may not exist anymore called wayback machine but I think those are valid questions. I feel like the FBI becomes more involved with criminal cases trying to mine that data rather than a historian just losing their sources. I am not sure!

  2. Hey McKenna,
    I find it so interesting to be having the this discussion now for two reasons. Firstly, in the time of Covid, archivists have had to start thinking not only about how to protect their materials from damage by users but also how to protect users from literal viruses living on their materials. I wonder if this is a consideration when working with things like CD-ROMs or USB drives? Secondly, and more relevant, I wonder what Kirshenbaum would say about erasing data to protect it creators? In a world where the government can access so much of our data?

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