Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mechanisms Wins MLA First Book Prize

I am simply floored to be announcing that Mechanisms has won the MLA's sixteenth annual Prize for a First Book. The press release and citation is here. The award will be conferred at the convention in Philadelphia at the end of the month.

Two Reviews and a Response at RCCS

The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies has published two new, very enthusiastic, reviews of Mechanisms: the first is by Viola Lasmana and the second is by Jentery Sayers. In addition, since it has been out for two years this December, I took the opportunity to write a response and offer some reflections on the book's reception and implications.

I feel especially fortunate to have Mechanisms joining the last set of reviews to be published at RCCS, which was founded over a decade ago by David Silver when he was still a graduate student in American Studies here at the University of Maryland. David is now retiring the site to move on to other projects, but RCCS was one of the places where I had long been looking forward to earning a review, and while it's a relief to have them come back so positive it's also a sadness to see the site come to the end of its work.

Friday, September 11, 2009

British PM Apologizes to Alan Turing

As has been widely reported, the British government today issued a state apology to Alan Turing, prosecuted (and ultimately driven to suicide) for his homosexuality.

Turing, of course, is a transformational figure not only in technology circles but Western intellectual history. In addition to his wartime role as a code-breaker, he made fundamental contributions to both computer science and artificial intelligence. In Mechanisms, I evoke Turing's uncanny ability to "read" the dance of lights in a cathode ray tube, then being used primarily as a storage rather than a display device. To quote Turing's biographer Alan Hodges, "He insisted that what one saw as spots on the tube had to correspond digit by digit to the program that had been written out" (399). Here's what I go on to say:
The popular dramatization of forensics as criminalistics . . . is, I would argue, a mere caricature of the forensic imagination, which is finally—and profoundly—humanistic and generative. In a famous analysis, Carlo Ginzburg links the art historian Giovanni Morelli, who focused on the seemingly incidental details of portraiture (ear lobes and such) to ascertain whether the hand of the master was present, to Sherlock Holmes and Freud (who had himself read Morelli) and finds shared among them, “an attitude oriented towards the analysis of specific cases which could be reconstructed only through traces, symptoms, and clues” (104). Ginzburg then adds a fourth and more primal figure to the tableau, a hunter kneeling on the trail to study the scat or track of his prey. This, according to Ginzburg, is our first reader of signs. Superimposed on the posture of that hunter I also see Alan Turing, leaning, straining, to “peep” the glowing spots and dashes in the Williams tube, marks inscrutable to most but as revealing to Turing as day-old prints on the forest floor. And superimposed over Turing, I would argue, is the familiar posture of today’s computer user—shoulders hunched, head thrust forward, peering into the depths of the screen . . . (256-7)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Computer Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections

Funding for a new project which I'm very excited about as it gives me a chance to apply some of the ideas in Mechanisms in real-world contexts. Here's the official announcement:

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland is pleased to announce the receipt of an $81,000 award from the Scholarly Communications program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The award will support research for and the writing of a report entitled Computer Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections, to be published in fall 2010 by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR); the award will also fund a symposium on the same topic at the University of Maryland in May 2010, at which experts from the cultural heritage sector and computer and information science, as well as practitioners in government, industry, and defense will convene to comment on the report and explore shared interests and practices.

Maryland's work on the report and symposium will be lead by principal investigator Matthew Kirschenbaum (Associate Director of MITH and Associate Professor of English); he will be joined by co-authors Richard Ovenden (Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director, Bodleian Library, Oxford) and Gabriela Redwine, an archivist and electronic records specialist at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

MITH's director Neil Fraistat comments, "Matt Kirschenbaum's leadership in bibliography, digital forensics, and digital preservation has helped position MITH at the forefront of crucial new work that is reconfiguring archival studies and practices. One of two recent grants from the Mellon Foundation on which MITH will be working in the coming year, Computer Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections allows us to continue fruitful partnerships with the Bodleian Library and the Ransom Center and promises to be a major leap forward for the field."

Friday, July 3, 2009

DeLong Book History Prize

I'm thrilled and humbled to announce that Mechanisms has won the DeLong Book History Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP). The prize is conferred annually for the "best book on any aspect of the creation, dissemination, or uses of script or print published in the previous year." It was announced last week in Toronto at the organizaton's annual conference.

When I wrote Mechanisms I knew, by virtue of the imprimatur of the MIT Press, that the book would find its audiences in new media studies. Equally important to me but much less certain was whether it would attract readers in fields like textual scholarship and the history of the book, which I considered the main precedents for my particular approach to the born-digital. The fact that Mechanisms has succeeded so well in doing this is immensely gratifying (as also evidenced by its winning the Finneran Prize), and I'm equally delighted that SHARP's sense of "book history" so obviously includes artifacts like hard drives and diskettes.

I have many friends in the SHARP community, though somehow I have never made it to their annual conference. Next year it is in Helsinki which might be a stretch but I will certainly be putting in a proposal for the 2011 conference in DC. Thank you again to SHARP!

Beach Reading

Peter Lunenfeld is including Mechanisms in his summer 2009 beach bag as a "key monograph" for the digital humanities, as reported on Roy Christoper's Summer Reading List. Thanks Peter!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Heavy Data

Hands down the best thing on the materiality of digital infrastructure I've read since Neil Stephenson's magisterial "Mother Earth Mother Board": Tom Vanderbilt's "Data Overload" looks at the architecture of data centers (and the geography of "the cloud") for the New York Times Magazine.
Much of the daily material of our lives is now dematerialized and outsourced to a far-flung, unseen network. The stack of letters becomes the e-mail database on the computer, which gives way to Hotmail or Gmail. The clipping sent to a friend becomes the attached PDF file, which becomes a set of shared bookmarks, hosted offsite. The photos in a box are replaced by JPEGs on a hard drive, then a hosted sharing service like Snapfish. The tilting CD tower gives way to the MP3-laden hard drive which itself yields to a service like Pandora, music that is always “there,” waiting to be heard.

But where is “there,” and what does it look like?

In the spirit of Mechanisms' "following the bits all the way to the metal," Vanderbilt goes and finds out.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Flash Drives From Flight 1549

Flash drives salvaged from baggage left behind from US Air flight 1549's emergency landing in the Hudson have been returned to passengers in good working order.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two New Reviews: Interdisciplinary Science Reviews and Drucker in DHQ

Two more reviews for Mechanisms have come in, and I couldn't be more pleased with both.

First, in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 34.1 (March 2009), Bert Van Raemdonck presents a very concise and accurate overview of the book, noting:
Kirschenbaum brings to bear on digital media a combination of interdisciplinary and methodological approaches that few scholars, if any, have combined up to now. . . . Kirschenbaum succeeds in turning highly theoretical and technical passages into a cohesive and inspiring story, rather than a mere enumeration of dry facts. (125-6; emphasis in original)

Second, Johanna Drucker (inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA) has reviewed Mechanisms for Digital Humanities Quarterly. Drucker's review is especially important to me, not only because she has long been someone I looked to as a mentor but also because she is one of the key contributors to the theoretical conversation on materiality that drives so much of what's in the book. She writes:
[Kirschenbaum] combines his training in literary and bibliographical studies, engagements with critical and cultural readings in media, and a wonderfully self-confessed geek-enthusiasm for figuring out exactly how things work. The result is improbably readable in its details and compellingly suggestive and significant in its overall argument. The book is also an exemplary demonstration of scholarly method for the emerging field of digital media studies. I’d make it required reading for any class in this field because of its interdisciplinary approach and rich documentation of sources.

She also picks up on the narrative element in the book, as did Van Raedmonck. At times during the writing I wasn't sure how closely I should flirt with obvious thematic corollary to the detective story; so I'm happy if I've managed to strike the right balance. Indeed, Drucker notes: "In fact, one of the great things about Kirschenbaum’s book is that he manages to turn his own fascination with the process of discovery into tales of mysteries that get solved."

Drucker concludes with a provocation that is worth broader discussion. Regarding the book's three main case studies, she writes:
But do any of these works have literary qualities that merit our critical engagement? If these weren’t digital texts would we read them as literature? For all my respect for these folks, I doubt it. Have any works appeared in digital media whose interest goes beyond novelty value?

To some extent this is a conversation that has already been pursued, for example in an extended exchange on the Institute for the Future of the Book's blog, as well as in the online response to this article in the Guardian. In my own case, I would want stick up for both Joyce and Gibson--I find both afternoon and "Agrippa" to be genuinely affecting works. I also find Kate Hayles's distinction between "literature" and "the literary" useful in this regard. Do readers have additional thoughts?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Richard J. Finneran Award

I am humbled, delighted, and frankly floored to announce that Mechanisms has won the Richard J. Finneran award from the Society for Textual Scholarship for best monograph or edition published in 2007-8. The award was conferred at the conference banquet in NYC the other night.

Richard J. Finneran was Professor of English at the University of Tennessee before an untimely death in 2005. In addition to serving as Executive Director of the STS, he was a distinguished scholar and editor of Yeats, his edition of the poems literally laying the foundation for the study of the poet's major works. He was also one of the first to grasp the implications of computers and new media for literary and textual studies. When I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, one of the first books I bought after deciding to do serious work in electronic textuality was The Literary Text in the Digital Age, which he edited. I had no idea who Richard Finneran was at the time, but I did know he had succeeded in gathering between two covers pretty much everyone in that field who was important to me. Several years later I met Richard in person at an MLA, at a session sponsored by the STS. I still didn’t know what he looked like, but he, somehow, knew who I was and in a room full of his distinguished colleagues and friends he took the time to greet and engage an assistant professor who hadn’t read Yeats since his comps.

This year, the STS conferred two Finneran awards, one for Mechanisms and the second for Richard's own facsimile edition of Yeats's The Tower, published posthumously by Cornell University Press in 2007. It is a tremendous honor and I am very grateful.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Great Wiping Controversy

No, it's not about what you're thinking. In a new paper, Craig Wright, Dave Kleinman, and Shyaam Sundhar R. S. seek to debunk the notion that it takes more than a single overwrite to securely delete digital data. "We demonstrate that the controversy surrounding this topic is unfounded."

The paper represents a challenge to some of the arguments in Mechanisms regarding the permanence of digital inscription. In particular, the authors suggest that Peter Gutmann's method of multiple redundant data passes to "sanitize" magnetic media has had undue influence, introducing a mythology about the difficulty of effectively erasing information stored on a magnetic disk.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review in Technical Communication

Got tipped off to a very nice review in the February 2009 issue of the journal Technical Communication. The author, Michael Truscello, describes the book's turn toward computer forensics as "ingenious," and adds: "Kirschenbaum's contribution to new media studies is substantial and not only transforms the way literature and technical writing can be theorized but also speaks to the ways history is preserved in and retrieved from digital archives or how culture in general forms at 'the nexus of storage, inscription, and instrumentation'."

Thanks to Truscello for a careful and generous reading.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Home of the Underdogs, the venerable abandonware site I write about at the end of chapter 4 (by way of contrast to archival spaces such as the Harry Ransom Center) is gone. The news comes from Alan Au on the IGDA Game Preservation SIG:
. . . the long-standing abandonware site "Home of the Underdogs" finally succumbed to hosting troubles on Monday (the webhosting company went bankrupt) and is probably gone for good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Not Such a Clear CHOICE

A positive, but awkward and opaque review in the January 2009 issue of CHOICE: "Mechanisms is a work devoted to existentialism in the media of computer hardware and software in the digital age. . . . Recommended."

Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Hey wow, another humanities professor who gets it about computers."

Speaking of Bruce Sterling, Mechanisms gets a nice shout out from him in his WIRED blog!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bruce Sterling on Bits

I wish I could say Sterling had been reading his Kirschenbaum, but he wrote this years before Mechanisms was out. It's great:
This is the part where we really have to scrunch up and stare, ladies and gentlemen. Because every time that the computer industry confuses its hardware with philosophy, we’ve got a serious problem. A stream of bits is not just ones and zeroes. Ones and zeroes are numbers, and even if arithmetic is immaterial, computers aren’t. Bits are not different from atoms: bits are bits of atoms. Bits are not ghosts or spirits or good intentions, bits have to be measurable, observable physical objects, like a Greek vase. Bits may be too small for the naked eye to see, but just like a cold germ or a hepatitis virus, they are most definitely around, and they’re a lot of trouble. Bits are moving electrons, moving photons, or they are magnetized clumps of atoms, laser burn marks in plastic, iron filings stuck together with tape. That’s what bits are.

The piece is called "Digital Decay." It's available as part of a superb collection by the Variable Media Network called Permanence Through Change.