June 13, 2008

Raid against the Machine

by Nick Montfort · , 2:45 pm

Mechanisms... book coverA Review of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
The MIT Press
316 pp.

Matt Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms is an extraordinary investigation into the surfaces the computer writes upon – not screens and paper, but the surfaces inside itself, chief among them the whirling, capacious, and surprisingly robust hard drive. Mechanisms explains how we can see through the myths of digital transience and ephemerality, and through layers of software and hardware abstraction, to understand how bits in digital storage systems can be durable, highly descriptive of writing activity, and shaped by material and formal factors as well as the cultural and economic circumstances of their creation. While other storage technologies (RAM, floppies) and other material aspects of the computer (screen and teletype, data and program) are discussed in the book, the hard disk, pictured on the cover and discussed in historical detail chapter 2, serves as the omphalos of the argument, which continues to sweep across the floppy-disk-based works of digital writing Mystery House, Afternoon: A Story, and Agrippa and to enlighten us about how digital writing is written to disk and read into culture.

This snippet from my copy of the 1989 Hard Disk Quick Reference (published by the Que Corporation and recently, luckily for me, deaccessioned from the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Library) expresses the contradictions in popular views of the hard drive:

All hard disks reduce the need for you to store data on floppy disks (although you still need to perform regular backups of your hard disk data) and provide you with the ability to transfer information rapidly between the Random-Access Memory (RAM) and the hard disk, where the data can be stored permanently. You can store many files on the hard disk, but this will result in the inherent risk of losing valuable data when mistakes are made or failures occur.

Ah, mass storage device – you contain multitudes. On the one hand you are fragile. We must perform regular backups since there is inherent risk of losing valuable data. On the other hand, you are hard and we can store data upon you permanently. The scholarly discourse has tended to follow the former part of our multifaceted view of the hard disk, emphasizing that this storage device, and digital media systems in general, facilitate the ability to transfer information rapidly but are as leaky and unreliable as a sieve. Kirschenbaum’s forensic approach to information storage technologies shows us qualities of the machine that have seldom, if ever, been remarked upon in new media studies. Word files include not only a creation time, accurate to the second, but also a fingerprint of the systems used to edit them. A Mystery House disk image found online, despite being abstracted away from its circular, magnetic existence, nevertheless contains remnants of old pirated programs in its slack sectors. Afternoon is not just a lattice of lexias, but a series of versions with as intricate a history as a printed text might have. Agrippa, designed to destroy itself and issued in only a handful of copies, has persisted and been propagated across the network, seemingly indelibly.

Mechanisms takes exactly the sort of approach that Ian Bogost and I are hoping to foster in our Platform Studies series: One that is technically rigorous and persistent in its investigations, and that arrives at new humanistic and scholarly insights because of this. Of course, Kirchenbaum chose to focus not on a specific platform or closely related family of platforms, as we hope Platform Studies authors will do, but on a component of modern systems. His choice seems to have been very wise, as these components and the role they play in computing have long been neglected, tucked out of view like the hard drive itself now is.

I have been recommending Mechanisms to humanists, writers, artists, curators, game developers, and others since I read it – and discussing it with those who’ve read it already. This is not your father’s book about hard drives. It’s also not the type of book we had in digital media studies five or ten years ago. Mechanisms is both very specific in its explication of technologies – from hex editors to the magnetic stripes on subway fare cards – and also very incisive in developing the implications of its discoveries and applying them to broader questions of digital writing. If Kirschanbaum’s approach is forensic, it isn’t limited to fact-finding and establishing evidence; it extends to an inquiry about how digital writing functions. If you’re among those who haven’t yet read Mechanisms, do check it out – and see where the drive leads you…