April 4, 2005

Trace On

by Nick Montfort · , 4:56 pm

Matt Kirschenbaum gave a talk today called “‘Every Contact Leaves a Trace:’ Computer Forensics and Electronic Textuality,” at Penn’s History of Material Texts Workshop. (The abstract is online.) He discussed the Department of Defense Clearing and Sanitization Matrix and how the seemingly extreme measures required to destroy digital data contradict the first wave of scholarly writing on the transient, unstable nature of digital text, from “the usual suspects.” He pointed to the luminous spectacle of Tron as one possible inspiration for this early discourse of speed and light.

While admitting that electronic writing can, technically, exist without inscription, he notes that this is very much an exception. The usually invisible storage systems, not the visible and flickering screen, are sites of more stable inscription and considered in forensic analysis. Matt showed some microscopic images that revealed the physical nature of recorded electronic data.

Matt also described how formally identical digital records can be forensically different, which he sees as related to an essential feature of computing: making formal, determined symbols from physical, material data. And there was even a shout out to Mystery House: Matt explored the Mystery House disk image and showed remnants of Dung Beetles and Blitzkrieg, evidence of how people overwrote games and that cracked games used to reside on the disk that housed this public domain game.

Forensics, Matt explained, is not about getting deeper into texts, but about making it strange: a hex editor is like a comparator with which we don’t read two editions of a book.