Mechanisms: An Annotation

by wsampson

Kirschenbaum, M. (2008). Mechanisms: New media and the forensic imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English and Associate Director at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), here examines digital media in the context of traditional textual studies and bibliography. Kirschenbaum presents to the reader forensic techniques for data recovery and investigation that reveal how digital media, typically assigned attributes like ephemeralness, repeatability and variability (what he terms a traditional “screen essentialism” attitude about digital media), actually fulfills traditional bibliographic requirements of individualism, provenance and inscription.

Central to understanding these qualities of new digital media is an understanding of the affordances and technical mechanics of the dominant storage device for the last twenty or so years: the magnetic hard disk drive. Kirschenbaum reveals how data inscription on these devices (the magnetic fluxes inscribed on the drive’s multiple platters) can identify past events and previous inscriptions in a discrete spatial territory, much like the clues traditionally found textual scholars. The author makes a distinction between this forensic materiality and the more familiar formal materiality of digital media: its carefully controlled and highly engineered behavior we see on the screen. The author elaborates on how software engineering and extensive error checking at every level of the computer works to migrate magnetic fluxes to actual human-readable documents on the screen. Even at the formal materiality level many bibliographic and textual details are overlooked for lack of close inspection: multiple versions, multiple operating environments, actual textual differences between works, etc.

Three case studies illuminate these topics: a forensic and textual analysis of a Mystery House disk image, a bibliographic and historic look at the multiple versions of Afternoon: A Story by Michael Joyce, and a look at the social and textual transmissions of William Gibson’s “Agrippa.”

Kirschenbaum’s central argument is that traditional characterizations of electronic texts and media (fluid, repeatable, identical, ephemeral) is insufficient for bibliographic, preservationist, and textual purposes, and that the media itself, upon closer examination, supports none of these characterizations.