Wednesday, December 17, 2008

neural Review

A cool new review in neural magazine:
Combining insights from textual analysis and software studies, a number of assumptions about the ephemeral nature of digital systems are thoroughly undone and reconceived . . . 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.
Plus, Michael Dieter did a longish interview with me exclusive to the newsstand edition.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for AGRIPPA

A MAJOR post-script to Mechanisms . . .

Agrippa Emulation3.png Screen.png

Agrippa (a book of the dead) appeared in 1992 as a collaboration between artist Dennis Ashbaugh, author William Gibson, and publisher Kevin Begos, Jr. On December 9, 2008--the sixteenth anniversary of the original "Transmission" event debuting Agrippa--The Agrippa Files ( announces the release of two major new discoveries for scholars and fans:

* An emulated "run" of the entire original Agrippa poem, made possible by the forensic recovery of the code containing Gibson's text from a mint condition Agrippa diskette loaned by collector Allan Chasanoff. This is the first public view of Agrippa in its original incarnation (that is, its custom-made behaviors and interface) since 1992. (direct link)

* An hour's worth of never-before-seen footage from the December 9, 1992, public debut of Agrippa at the Americas Society in New York City during the "Transmission" event. This footage, shot by "Templar, Rosehammer, and Pseudophred" is the source of the transcription of the text that was released online within hours of the event.
(direct link)

These materials are accompanied by high-resolution images, stills from the video, screenshots, and a bit-level copy of the disk image itself, all publicly accessible with the permission of Kevin Begos, Jr., William Gibson, Allan Chasanoff, "Templar," and "Rosehammer."

We are also pleased to be releasing a major new full-length essay documenting the process of recovering these materials and exploring their significance for the study of the work: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, "No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa." (direct link)

The Agrippa Files, a project of the UC Santa Barbara English Department's
Literature.Culture.Media Center, was aided by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and the Digital Forensics Lab at University of Maryland, College Park, in recovering and releasing these materials. Special thanks to Doug Reside and Matt Kirschenbaum for their efforts.

Alan Liu
Professor and Chair
Department of English,
UC Santa Barbara

Matthew Kirschenbaum
Associate Professor and Associate Director,
Department of English and MITH
University of Maryland

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Tabbi at ebr

A copy of the review by Joseph Tabbi that appeared in the Summer 2008 issue (Vol. 49, no. 2) of Contemporary Literature (see below) is now online at ebr.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Big thanks to Meredith McGill and everyone at the Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis for having me up to discuss Mechanisms as part of their New Media Literacies seminar the other day. So, basically, the way this works is you have fifteen or so terrifically bright grad students, post docs, and faculty who have read large chunks of the book spend three hours talking through the work with you, then (after some wine at a reception) whisk you off to a tremendous Greek restaurant where more mine is consumed, along with copious amounts of delicious food. Seriously, one of the nicest visits I've had, and some invaluable feedback. Rereading one's own work sometimes seems like equal parts guilty pleasure and mortification, but too often in this profession we want to hear about what's new, what's next, and what's in progress---as though ideas shed their interest value once published. Not so. Going back to Mechanisms in such good company was a pleasure.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tabbi in Contemporary Literature

Joseph Tabbi, Professor of English at UIC, founder of ebr, and current president of the Electronic Literature Organization offers some very probing and thoughtful comments about Mechanisms in "Locating the Literary in New Media" (MUSE subscription required), a review essay published in Contemporary Literature 49.2 (Summer 2008): 311-331.
To separate an operative signal from noise is not only the goal of information science but also, Kirschenbaum reminds us, the foundation of modern bibliographic studies in its concern with the transmission of literary texts. Kirschenbaum cites essentially all modern textual scholars on this point, from his University of Virginia mentor, Jerome McGann, back through Randall McLeod, Fredson Bowers, and W. W. Greg, who in 1932 stated, "at the root of all literary criticism lies the question of transmission, and it is bibliography that enables us to deal with the problem" (qtd. in Kirschenbaum 214). Kirschenbaum argues--implicitly, through case studies, rather than polemically--that such an informatic, forensic approach is as relevant today as ever, and even more so as the devices for storage and routes of literary transmission are multiplied by computers and carried by expanding networks of communication.

The essay also takes up recent books by Thomas Foster, Kate Hayles, and Martin Kevorkian. Well worth a look all around.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Storage Studies

So one of the things Mechanisms tries to do is make the case for storage, the ugly duckling in the new media ecology. (Storage is boring. What can one possibly say about it?) In the book, I spend one chapter on developing a "grammatology" of hard drives, and another conducting a protracted forensic walkthrough of a disk image of the old Apple II game Mystery House. (And here I just cannot believe this thing isn't shooting to the top of the bestseller lists, folks.) Anyway, courtesy of Jeremy Douglass, comes this remarkable entry on Oldskooler Ramblings, entitled "The diskette that blew Trixter's mind."

We join the story as our hero, Trixter, is rummaging through some recent antiquarian acquisitions for games to archive in his collection and comes across something strange:
. . . and it was when I got to Mental Blocks that I ran into something I’d never seen before: The manual for Mental Blocks claims that, for both C64 and IBM, you put the diskette in label-side up. I thought that had to be a typo, since every single mixed C64/IBM or Apple/IBM diskette I have ever seen is a “flippy” disk where one side is IBM and the other side is C64 or Apple — until I looked at the FAT12 for the disk and saw that tons of sectors in an interleaved pattern were marked as BAD — very strange usage.

Basically, each sector on the diskette is formatted for either the C64 or IBM, in an interleaved pattern; in other words, it's "a mixed-format, mixed-architecture, mixed-sided diskette." (The screenshot of the diskette's FAT on the Oldskool blog is pretty jaw-dropping.) Trixter goes on to muse:
I think I need to go on a mission to discover who built the disk format(s) by hand to see what he was thinking. Did he work on it for weeks, feverishly trying to figure out how to meet the publisher’s demands? Or was he so brilliant that he did it all in a day or so, not thinking too much about it other than it was just another facet of his job? Fascinating stuff!

Indeed. The desire to get inside this guy's head (assuming it was a guy) speaks volumes about the allure of what I've once or twice called, new media tongue-firmly-in-cheek, "storage studies." What really interests me is that it's marker of how much the material affordances of computing have changed in the last two decades, since this kind of physical consideration of the geometry of the diskette and its low-level formatting would be unthinkable in an era of terabyte drives. There's also something wonderfully analogous to the codex, "an acknowledgment of the extent to which efficient inscription demands the rationalization of the writing space, regardless of medium" (80-1) as I put it in the hard drive chapter.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Software Studies

Mechanisms earns a mention in Michael Deiter's review of the new Software Studies collection edited by Matthew Fuller, currently at the top of my own to-get list:
Here, engineering documents were as likely a source of inspiration as Gilles Deleuze or Marshall McLuhan, resulting in a ‘material turn’ constituted by highly engaging work such as Alex Galloway’s protocological network theory or the more recent forensic hard drive analysis of Matthew Kirschenbaum. Software Studies: A Lexicon, edited by Matthew Fuller, should be considered as explicitly positioned in relation to this transition and its concerns.

I very much conceived of Mechanisms as a contribution to software studies, so it's nice to be in such good company.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fall Syllabi?

Noticed that Amanda Gailey, who teaches digital humanities at University of Georgia, has included Mechanisms on her fall syllabi (thanks Amanda; if you see this please encourage your students to follow the blog and post questions here).

If you're teaching the book, or know of others who are, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Friday, August 1, 2008

July/August Open Thread

Questions, comments, have at.

Living With a Computer (in 1982)

Just read through James Fallows "Living With a Computer," a piece he wrote for The Atlantic back in 1982. Fallows, then a recent convert to word processing, enthusiastically sang the praises of his first system, a Processor Technology SOL-20 running a software package called Electric Pencil.

It's a fascinating look into the early home computer industry, and also a bracing reminder of how much certain fundamental affordances of the computing experience have changed over the years. One of the points Mechanisms tried to hit repeatedly is that storage was a far more visible and . . . grungier dimension of that experience than we typically understand today, when storage devices are abstracted into disk partitions (accessed via icons on a desktop) or else accessorized as fashion and lifestyle statements (iPods or thumbdrives). Here are some of the best bits. Keep in mind that Fallows is writing within a year of the ascendancy of MS-DOS.

. . . the war of standardization for personal computers is just about over. The crucial, bitterly contested territory was the disk-operating system, the coded instructions that enable computers to interface (the word cannot be escaped in this business) with the disk drives. My system uses the North Star Disk Operating System, abbreviated DOS and pronounced doss, but North Star didn't win. The winner was a DOS called CP/M (for Control Program for Microcomputers), which has become the industry standard and is earning millions for a formerly small company known as Digital Research.

The practical limit on what a computer can do is not the memory built into the machine itself [. . .] but rather how much information it can quickly draw from its disks.

The top of the line among storage systems is the hard disk, most often available in the form called the Winchester. (This is not a brand but a nickname, applied by wits in the computer world because the model number on one of the earliest drives was 3030, reminiscent of a rifle.) The other disks, known as floppies, get pulled in and out of their drives like tape cassettes, but a Winchester is permanently sealed in its case. You don't need to remove the hard disks because each one stores a prodigious amount of data, from two or three on up to several dozen megabytes. With even a small Winchester, you can store some 2,000 pages of data at once—enough, for example, to contain all the notes for a book, along with drafts of all chapters, or a record of all your correspondence over a period of years. Winchesters are expensive; cheap models go for about $2,000, and some of them cost at least twice that much. But you shouldn't buy one right now anyway They're just entering the period of soaring volume and falling prices and will be cheaper in a year.

So, living with a computer circa 1982: hard drives are still as yet exotic indulgences (storing up to 2000 pages!), disk operating systems have been the subject of bitter industry infighting, and the experience of computing itself is characterized in part by the repeated activity of swapping diskettes in and out of drives. (I remember what a big deal it was when my family added a second 5 1/4" drive to our Apple IIe, allowing me to run games and other programs which depended on being able to draw data from two disks at the same time.) There's still much work to be done on storage, inscription, and the machinery of computation.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


More than six months out of the gate, and Mechanisms has yet to garner a single review/rating on Amazon. This is not surprising, few university press titles ever do (Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media is something of an exception, with fourteen ratings; by contrast, Espen Aarseth's Cybertext, published in 1997 and indisputably a foundational text in the field, has a mere three ratings).

Question: are Amazon ratings important for an academic book? Or will the long tail take care of its own?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Preservation as Software Studies

My "pecha kucha" presentation at Softwhere 2008.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Last night I got to hear film director James Cameron speak about his exploration of the wreck of the infamous German battleship DKM Bismarck at the American Society of Naval Engineers (a venue that doesn't draw many English professors). I mention this here because Cameron's talk introduced me to maritime forensics, a fascinating field at the intersection of history, high-tech, and underwater archeology. In the course of his 45-minute talk, Cameron painstakingly detailed the difficulty of determining what actually sank the Bismarck, the shellfire and torpedoes of the British fleet or, as survivors have long claimed, the crew's own scuttling charges. The key witness is "the steel," the entity Cameron repeatedly invoked as a kind of synecdoche for the mute material evidence of the wreck.

What was most striking about the talk was how the brutal chaos and violence of a modern naval engagement could be reduced to the engineering teams' clinical reconstructions of the trajectories of specific shells, fired from a particular battery at a particular moment in the fighting. (Such feats are not uncommon in naval history, however: John Campbell's Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting offers similar data on hundreds of shell strikes during the largest dreadnought battle of the First World War.) To obtain an accurate picture of the battle damage, however, Cameron's team first had to "subtract" (his word) the damage incurred when the ship plunged three miles to the ocean floor, impacted, and then slid down the side of an undersea mountain. The maritime forensics specialist must therefore become adept at differentiating and interpreting cryptic marks and shapes in the ship's steel, all that is left to testify to unimaginable stresses and trauma.

Bismarck's underwater remains are a grim reminder of that key dictum of forensic science that is also central to Mechanisms: every contact leaves a trace. It is also, however, a reminder of the intimate and essential connection between forensics and humanism, for while there were few things on earth as inhuman as the warship and the regime it served, Cameron compellingly demonstrated the eloquence of the signs we read in those twisted shards of steel when they intersect with survivor's memories to tell the stories that make up history.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Leonardo Review

Jan Baetens (poet and Professor at the Institute for Cultural Studies of the University of Leuven) reviews Mechanisms for Leonardo On-Line, calling the book "a watershed":
In the reflection on new media, this book is undoubtedly a watershed publication. Its basic stance is that electronic writing can only be understood if we accept to consider it a real form of writing, i.e. of material inscriptions on material surfaces, and therefore to leave behind many of the myths that surround digital culture.

What makes Kirschenbaum’s work so thrilling and innovative is, however, not only the demonstration that electronic writing is also a way of writing, even if the computer is a machine meant to withdraw its own material operations from our attention [. . .] At least as important is the humanist viewpoint defended by the author [. . .] In his book, Kirschenbaum uses forensics as a tool to think of electronic writing as a chain of contacts which are never materially lost, while at the same time insisting on the fact that it is much more than just a sequencing of inscriptions on a hard disk (of on other types of surfaces, although the hard disk has now become the dominating form).

Mechanisms, which opens totally new grounds for electronic textual scholarship, will be one of the books that can redefine what it means to be a digerate.

Wow. It's an amazingly generous review, but also very detailed. I'm floored.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I knew from the moment that I began working on the project that I wanted the book to be called Mechanisms. I was terrified, though, that someone else in the field would use the title first. It seemed like such an obvious choice--"mechanism" is a word that crops up in our conversations all the time. For me it was perfect, capturing the mechanistic side of computation that I was keen to foreground, as well as connoting both product and process, artifact and algorithm.

The subtitle was much more difficult to nail. Initially it was something like "New Media and the Forensics of Digital Inscription." Ugh. One of the original reviewers for the project gently suggested I might like to reconsider. I did like the focus on inscription (as opposed to text or textuality), but let's face it, that's not a construction calculated to grab even the scholarly impulse buyer. I subsequently played with many variations, trying to retain forensics, textuality or inscription, and new media as key concepts. For a long while, the book was subtitled "New Media and Forensic Textuality," and it appears as such in some early citations. Textuality was important to me because the book is so deeply grounded in humanistic traditions of textual scholarship, but in the end I just couldn't make it work. "New Media and Forensic Textuality" was a phrase which smothered; "New Media and the Forensic Imagination" struck me as dynamic and evocative. The book's coda is also called "The Forensic Imagination," so there's some nice structural reinforcement there. In the end I'm quite pleased with how I titled the book, and I should also mention that the MIT Press gave me complete freedom to do so, for which I am very grateful (I know many colleagues publishing elsewhere who have had glib or awkward titles foisted on them by marketing departments).

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Hard Driving Review

Nick Montfort posts a hard driving review of Mechanisms over on Grand Text Auto.
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.

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 about more than hard drives of course. But my biggest concern was finding a way to discuss new media with the same degree of material specificity we've been accustomed to seeing in other fields, and I'm thrilled that as perceptive and knowledgeable a reader as Nick has found that in the book.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Every Contact Leaves a Trace

This phrase, adapted from pioneering forensic investigator Edmond Locard, is not only one of my chapter titles in Mechanisms, but also one of the central dictums of the book, for I claim this holds true as much (or more) in digital environments as the physical world. So I was intrigued to read an account of software developed to detect digital image tampering in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 6, 2008):
Mr. Farid, of Dartmouth, has developed software tools that can automatically check for image tampering. The software looks for patterns in the digital code underlying an image. When files are opened and altered in Photoshop, for instance, codes are added that Mr. Farid's software can detect. Likewise, when scientists copy and paste parts of images in software programs, their actions leave a digital mark. (A10)

In the book, I described the kind of "marks" Farid's software detects as an artifact of what I termed formal materiality. I wrote:
An image file is typically thought of as consisting of nothing but information about the image itself—the composition of its pixilated bitmap, essentially. In fact, however, the image can carry metadata (documentation as to how it was created, embedded as plain text in the “header” of the file), as well as more colorful freight, such as a steganographic image or a digital watermark. This content will only become visible when the data object is subjected to the appropriate formal processes, which is to say when the appropriate software environment is invoked—anything from the “Show Header” function of an off-the-shelf image viewer to a 128-bit encryption key. (12-13)

The kind of software the described in the Chronicle's article contributes to our understanding of digital objects as mechanisms, that is as artifacts with a recoverable past--as opposed to black boxes or inscrutable blobs of code.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

June Open Thread

Comments, questions, rants, raves. You know the drill.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Royal Treatment

I got my first royalty check today from sales of Mechanisms!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Transformer 2.0

From the Humanities Computing Centre at UVic comes word of a handy quasi-forensic utility for extracting text strings from old binaries. If you have need of such, go check out Transformer 2.0.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

WIRED Tours Computer Forensics Lab

WIRED discovers computer forensics, with a short article (and some good photos) here.

I toured a similar lab when researching Mechanisms. At one point, as we were preceding through a large room filled with people working in cubicles, I noticed that a set of blue rotating bubble lights had been lit. I asked what they were for. "They're for you," my escort said; this was the signal that visitor was in the room and that any sensitive material needed to disappear from screens.

Thanks to GHW for the tip.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Data from Columbia's Hard Drive

Significant scientific research data has been successfully read from a hard drive recovered from the wreckage of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Needless to say the drive itself had undergone severe trauma.

The seeming-paradox of digital data's extreme vulnerability and remarkable persistence is one of my foundational concerns in Mechanisms. The book opens with a similar tale of data recovery from hard drives that were salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center. Mechanisms argues that the volatility of digital data is a function not of its inscriptive regimen (which is among the most durable and forensically replete we have ever created) but rather the increasing orders of abstraction that attend digital data in order to manipulate it in usable form--thus the book's central distinction between what I term forensic and formal materiality.

Thanks to Nathan Kalber for the tip.

Update: This CNN coverage adds some interesting details, including the fact that the drive's computer was running DOS, meaning that the data was written in one discreet area of the drive rather than scattered over multiple discontinuous sectors--which created the conditions necessary for localized physical trauma to miss the areas with stored information.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mechanisms Meets the Students

Came across a sequence of blogs posts on the book from undergraduate students in one of Dennis Jerz's classes at Seton Hill. It looks to me like they were remarkably patient and persistent with it, early comments ranging from "frankly I am not enjoying this book at all so far" and "my head hurts" to later chapters, where "chapter 3 is making things much more interesting" and "I really enjoyed the section of the chapter dealing with formal materiality and applications" and "Kirschenbaum keeps emphasizing that a computer’s environment is built . . . I feel like he is almost saying that the computer was made for simulations and the reproduction of reality." If any of Dennis's students want to post specific questions here I'm happy to try to answer.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April (and May) Open Thread

Comments and questions about the book. No foolin'.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Errata (2)

p. 103. The correct title of the work I am discussing is Data Diaries, not Digital Diaries (two references).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Practical Persistence/Practical Ephemerality

Cathy Davidson introduces these potentially useful terms in the course of an exchange over citation conventions for Twitter, during which Mechanisms came up in the comments:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

February (and March) Open Thread

February open thread for comments and questions about the book.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Top Ten

Wow! As can be seen on MIT Press's current home page, Mechanisms was one of their top ten sellers for the month of January. (I'm not sure if the list is in order or not, but Mechanisms is the seventh book on it.)

Notice from Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs Mechanisms, generously stating "There is nothing as good as this book on the material nature of digital encoding or inscription, from the point of view of the history of verbal language recording systems and writing, indeed, of textual transmission or, in Randall McLeod’s term [. . .] transformission."

Monday, January 14, 2008

January Open Thread

January open thread for comments and questions about the book.

Spotted in the Wild?

Have you seen Mechanisms in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Let me know!


As the need arises (hopefully not too often) I will use this blog to note any significant errata. Here is the first such instance:

p. 263. "The video went up onto MindVox that same night"

Not the "video," but the transcribed text of Gibson's "Agrippa." The video itself was never posted (nor could it have been, given the BBS technology).

Mechanisms Podcast

Mechanisms is featured in the MIT Press’s January podcast. I discuss various aspects of the book, including the significance of storage in new media studies, my archival work on Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, and the ethics of forensic studies. It’s about 15 minutes. (Direct link to the Mp3.)


Mechanisms' publication date is January 2008, but the books arrived at MIT Press's warehouse on December 12, 2007, and a couple of days later I had my copies at my door. It was available at and other online vendors soon afterward, and also at the MIT Press booth at the Chicago MLA.