Reading and discussion question for Wednesday

On Monday, we’ll finish our discussion of Iron Man.

For Wednesday, please read Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Extreme Inscription: Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive,” which can be found at , and answer the following discussion question:

In this article, Kirschenbaum tries to define the material properties of the hard drive itself, as opposed to the material properties of the onscreen images that the hard drive helps make possible. How does this emphasis on the formal properties of the hard drive affect our understanding of the materiality of computer graphics?

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 3:19 pm  Comments (15)  

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  1. Matthew Kirschenbaum dictates that the computer’s digital media is more real or is just as real or concrete as say a sheet of paper or a book. One example shown in his article is the idea of a doughnut style book which gives us a new way at looking at digital media. The concept of a Hard Drive Disk or Compact Disk being a book formed as a doughnut and to read the book, either be a line or word one must quickly rotate the book one revolution. Unlike a book a hardrive is a three dimensional writing tool, this may be why we see computer media as a different writing tool than traditional methods. Taking this idea into CGI films or digital graphics one can see the true materiality behind the images on the screen. We can then interpret CGI as a window on itself to another world where such creatures or machines actually exist, where they live and breathe.

  2. In his article describing the material properties of the hard drive, Kirschenbaum throws into stark light the contrast between what we see on the screen as users- stable images, flexible means of word processing, etc.- and the actual fragility of its foundation in the hard drive. He states that the hard drive either succeeds spectacularly or fails globally; however, there is no real way of telling just how this is determined. This makes using electronic hard drive-based devices a little precarious, as well as a little mystifying. Kirschenbaum goes on to describe what can be seen as the “mystery” of the hard drive- we cannot see it, since it is encased in somewhat of a dark room inside the machinery of our computers, but we can hear it spinning up or down as it works, and we can see the effects of its working through our capacity to download, store, edit, and save files on our screens. The “real” materiality of the hard drives brings into light the flexible immateriality of the screen to which it gives life. Its very existence juxtaposes the “real,” or material, with the “unreal,” or immaterial, and shows just how important each is to the existence of the other, and to us as a technological society.

  3. In the article, Matthew Kirschenbaum explains the materiality of a computers hard drive and how it relates to what we see on the computer screen. We never pay attention to the hard drive, the substance that is giving life to the onscreen images we see. We may hear it operating, but we are too busy with what is shown on screen to take notice of it.
    Though we cannot see the hard drive, every time we use a computer we see the fruit of its labor. We see the fruit not only through images, but also through the wide variety of content that is available to us as a result of the hard drive. Movies, music, television shows, and other forms of content and media are downloaded onto the hard drive and not the computer screen, but we watch and listen to them from the computer screen.
    The hard drive, as Kirschenbaum states, is “a machine that ‘writes’ without physical contact, which leaves no visible trace apparent to the unaided eye…” The materiality of the hard drive belongs to Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet theory; it is invisible and allows to clearly view the onscreen images, words, and movies on the computer screen.

  4. In taking a closer look at the hard-drive, we may better understand the depth of materiality that digital text and computers possess.
    The hard-drive in essence is the basis for all other mediums we believe a computer to present. To exclude an analysis of the hard-drive and the use of code, or machine-specific language, begets a shallow understanding of any and all computer-based graphics and formats.
    This is basically what I gathered in reading the article, that data storage is a part of the seamless integration of the more visually-friendly icons and interactive parts of the monitor that we take for granted. In much the same way, typography for books and other written materials can be viewed as a mechanisms for organizing and presenting information in as clear a manner.

  5. Kirschenbaum’s essay calls for the definition of electronic textuality to be expanded to include the “machine language markings and machine readable inscriptions” in order to dispel the incumbent illusion that the materiality of magnetic storage devices only exists abstractly. This misconception, Kirschenbaum explains,results from “a fundamental characteristic [of digital inscription]: to remove electronic objects from the channels of direct human observation.” As a result, the common user conceives of their hard drive only symbolically “by a letter (C) or a crude desktop icon.”

    In fact, what we view on the screen cannot subsist without material representation, both digital and analog. Tucked away behind every graphical representations we encounter in our everyday use of computers is a multitude of digital inscriptions existing in a “looking glass world where the Kantian manifold of space and time is measured in millionths of a meter and thousandths of a second.” Kirschenbaum’s emphasis on the formal properties of the hard drive suggests then that our conception of the “materiality” of computer graphics needs to be expanded beyond the visual/artificial images we perceive with our senses. These “screen deep flickering signifiers” are the result of encoded processes that display/translate/transcribe the information stored on a hard drive which exists physically, in a “volumetric” space, however microscopic. This dimension of graphical materiality, as Kirschenbaum suggests, is essential to an understanding of computing from the standpoint of technologies of writing, textuality, and inscription — in short, the stuff of representations.”

  6. Kirschenbaum indicates the lens of his examination of the hard drive and its history using a quote from another critic: “One way of understanding writing technology, notes Gitelman, is as an artifact of a culture’s ‘consensual, embodied theories of language'”. He goes on to say that he doesn’t hope to put the hard drive into that same category, but asks that the reader consider these ideas.

    Kirschenbaum stated that “A hard disk drive is a three-dimensional writing space.” This helped me understand something that was not clear to me about how he thinks about hard disk drives. It is a writing space that the computer actually uses to write things on the surface of the platters. There is a physical inscription going on that is akin to writing done on a piece of paper by a human being, except the computer is using its own language to make inscriptions it can later translate from an analog signal to a digital one. In this way the hard disk drive becomes a consensual, embodied theory of the language of computers, a physical manifestation of theories of communication between a physical writing surface and the digital screen.

  7. Kirschenbaum explains how the hard works and tells us the many things we take for granted that it does for us. The hard drive stores many different files we don’t even think about going to the hard drive. It is always working and saving our information but the work it does usually goes unnoticed because aren’t paying attention to it. The hard drive is there; working hard to store our information that is important to us, but no one can physically see the hard drive because it is inside the computer. We see files being saved on our desktop inside of files but never really realize or think about the hard drive as it saves our information. Even the capacity of the hard drive seems infinite as most people do not pay attention to the size of files they are saving on their computer or how much space they have left before they run out of room on their hard drive.

  8. The hard drive makes computer graphics possible and an easy alternative as it saves previous work. In this article they mention the iPods use of hard drive. What we see on our iPod screen isn’t half of what is really going on with our device. I remember using CDs in order to listen to music on a headset. Changing the CD once the playlist came to an end and the bulk of all the CDs you owned. Now you can have thousands of songs on one portable device. The hard drive serves everyone in many different occupations but in the same way. It would take one hundred times longer to create an animation if the animators had to start over every time. But thanks to the hard drive, they have every basic tool they need to create something efficiently.

  9. In Electric Language: A Philosophical Discussion of Word Processing (1987), Michael Heim argues “The writer has no choice but to remain on the surface of the system underpinning the symbols” when using computers because the mechanical movements of transcription are not visible to the human eye. Kirschenbaum satirically discredits the sole focus on “interactivity” by recounting the noise hard drives make. By focusing on the history and “grammatological primitives” of the hard drive, Kirschenbaum explains that digital inscription is a form of displacement, that it hides the act of inscription from the human eye. Kirschenbaum does not, though, lend creation through the graphical interface to the physically immaterial. He instead argues that the form of the storage devices leads interfacing with computers to be interfacing with a database, in which material objects exist but without an essential sequence or structure that relates them. In his book Otaku,, Hiroki Azuma explains that “database animals”, or users in a database system, look at individual objects in said system by some kind of overriding aesthetic. Kirschenbaum describes the rise of archiving instead of deleting and explains that while computers create the “illusion of immateriality”, actually looking at amassed data and saying it corresponds to all of a person’s reality is both scary and unrealistic. Files on a computer are saved to be stored and then retrieved. Graphics are a representation of an a randomly, electrically, planographically stored file. The practice of physically retrieving a file, and in the concept of saving and later search for a file, are both acts of accessing the material, but both may be obscured by packaging.

  10. I found the most salient aspect of Kirschenbaum’s essay to be the effectiveness with which he deconstructs the prevalent ideal of the hard drive as a sort of homogenizing force which is able to infinitely reduce other media into a series of zeroes and ones. By providing such a complex deconstruction of the hard drive’s physical properties, he is able to “humanize” it in the sense that he is able to remove the sort of mystical aura which is attributed to the hard drive which results in it being ignored by many as a malleable media of it’s own. The data contained on the hard drive itself, Kirschenbaum argues, has it’s own distinct materiality. The data sectors accessed for a locally stored MP3 are distinct from those of a Flash game streamed from an internet browser. Kirschenbaum effectively legitimizes the digital as both an art form and removes it from the pedestal of the omnipotent homogenization device it is often made out to be.

  11. The article states that hard disk drives have been the primary storage media for personal computers since the mid-1980s, and are considered reliable, fast, and of high capacity. However, the materiality of hard disk drives have been around for way longer than that, this is taking into consideration that the materiality of computer graphics is correlated to the materiality of ink and paper. Jacob Rabinow is credited for promoting the idea that of the “digital book”, that is, the comparison of disks to pages and of the concentric recording tracks to lines on the page. With this point, it is evident that efficiency of inscription demands taking into consideration the writing space, regardless of the medium.

  12. In Kirschenbaum” Extreme Inscription: Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive” he explains the relationship between us, computer users, and the machine which we’ve become so reliant on. As I write this I’m looking at a device which emits light in the form of images, but that is only possible because of the dull humming I hear in the background, i.e. – my hard drive. That unseen device is responsible for all the digital pictures, movies, words, and music which I hear, and in such is the physical representation to all of those items. However, my relationship with my “computer” is separate from those items because in my eyes the computer is made up of the images in the monitor despite the fact that those images are made by my hard drive. This understanding of computers is because we view the immaterial aspect of them while their material parts are kept tucked away. In a way it’s almost like a suspension of disbelief in that because we can’t see the parts which make this very post possible, we are allowed to feel that these words and images are more tangible than they really are.

  13. Kirschenbaum’s discussion of physical hard drives and the properties associated with them deepens the complexity associated with the idea of computer graphics. He details the materiality of the device and how its moving parts transfer that motion to virtual representations of different media and actions. These facts affect how most people view hard drives because these internal mechanisms are imagined as invisible, for the most part. Besides the sensory clues such as operation sounds and heat exchange, the hard drive rarely surfaces in the user’s mind. By illuminating the actual device as a “real,” we may better understand the workings of a computer and not just take the process for granted and attributing the experience to magic. The article allows us to consider what happens in the physical world when a file is created in the virtual world. While vastly different from the real world production of a piece of paper, a computer document’s virtual creation undergoes seemingly just as much alteration.

  14. Kirschenbaum’s focus on the interior of the computer in the hard drive brings to mind Heidegger’s point about not noticing a tool until it stops working. This is similar to Kirschenbaum’s contention that hard drives, in the view of the user, either work well enough that they are invisible or “crash spectacularly.” His article affects our view of the materiality of computer graphics because he forces us to confront a deeper hypermediacy than the screen. Though we may acknowledge the screen as the medium through which we gain information on a computer we rarely think deeper into the storage of the information, an extra level to appreciate. The screen is used for presentation while the hard drive is in a sense building what we see on the screen. When we acknowledge that the graphics and information must be retrieved from a source we feel a more material quality in the graphics.

  15. ” Working at the computer screen, I cannot read unaided the magnetic markers that physically embody the information within the computer, but I am acutely aware of the patterns of blinking lights that comprise the text in its screen format”. (Haley from the article).
    With computers there needs to be this “digital signification” where the there is an open ended loop of feedback between the computation and representation (Kirschenbaum). The magnetic substrate in a drive allows for things to be copied, rewritten, or recycled just like computer graphics… Things/objects can be alterned manipulated to mold a figure or background. The hard drive is essential to computer graphics and effects in that it needs to incorporate more storage; the more storage, the clearer the representation, the more you (the graphic designer) can play and create and reveal, and smoother editing techniques to create a finsih product.
    The fact that most of media today is digital or computer generated illustrates that what the human eye actually translates as a series of images is actually in fact, a transcription of a computer’s hard drive (brain) of just two simple numbers- zero and one. The reason the hard drive is not entirely assiociated with computer graphics is because the human eye never really sees what is does on a daily basis, or how the hard drive had any impact to the conception or representation of the created image.
    “We read a book that has never been opened”…

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