Matthew G. Kirschenbaum – Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

The MIT Press, ISBN 9780262113113, U.S.A., 2008, English
The cover of Mechanisms shows a hard drive recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Centre, a scorched and partially destroyed ‘black box’ from which data was nevertheless successfully recovered in the aftermath of the terrorist disaster. A haunted artifact, this unsettling image speaks volumes of the persistent materialities that make up our so-called information age, a theme that is rigorously pursued by Matthew Kirschenbaum in this innovative study of inscription devices and digital storage. Combining insights from textual analysis and software studies, a number of assumptions about the ephemeral nature of digital systems are thoroughly undone and reconceived as the remarkable engineered durability and processuality of ordinary hard drives is elaborated throughout the book. Beyond technical discussions of data clusters, error correction, magnetic force microscopy and other esoteric subfields of computer science, Kirschenbaum applies a formalist reading of several influential electronic texts, including Michael Joyce’s Afternoon: a Story, William Gibson’s ‘Agrippa’ and a disk image (.dsk) of the Sierra On-Line videogame Mystery House (through which, amazingly, traces of prior inscriptions are revealed, older games once stored on the original floppy disk, the remnants of a past media ecology). In doing so, some useful conceptual distinctions are offered, with far-reaching consequences for debates in the field of new media more generally, including a detailed explanation of how von Neumann architectures offer a working model of immateriality via the implementation of a vast material cascade of affordances. Here, Kirschenbaum’s notion of forensics comes to the fore as a thought-provoking take on the complexities that emerge between singular moments of inscription specific to an otherwise standard (formal) digital object within a software environment. Mechanisms takes us to the far limits of technological imagination in this way, a world of archival surfaces beyond our regular perception, but integral to the infrastructures of contemporary everyday life, arranged through a precise and managed indeterminacy: ‘a buzzing nano-gap between the magnetic read/write head of the drive and the surface of the platter below, moving at some 10,000 RPM, the distance separating the two akin to flying a jumbo jet inches above the surface of the earth’.

Michael Dieter