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Summary: Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Grammatology of the Hard Drive

In chapter three of his influential work Mechanisms, new media scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum narrows his focus on storage to the hard drive. This device is particularly interesting for Kirschenbaum because “[m]ost users will never see their hard drive during the life of their computer”.  Their invisibility from the vast majority of users, he argues, often produces a sense of hard drives as abstract, even “immaterial”, forms of storage.

The shift from paper and magnetic tape to hard drives has multiple implications for the process of digital writing, all of which are tied to hard drives’ hidden but critical form of materiality. Particularly after the “addressing problem” of early hard drives was solved by using a series of invisible transformations to change alphanumeric file names into arbitrary numerical strings in order to make them easier to locate and recall on the disk, Kirschenbaum argues that “digital inscription” became a “form of displacement” and “suspended animation” wherein human actions were shifted away from direct manipulation of digital objects. (Though Norman isn’t addressing hard drives in particular, there is an interesting intersection here with his argument that more affordances should be made visible to users.)

At the same time as storage might make digital writing feel removed from the subject doing the writing, however, Kirschenbaum also contends that disk storage represents a deep form of intimacy, both between user and data (such that storage can be considered a “locus of identity”) and between two or more individuals (which he showcases using the example of someone sharing an iPod containing every piece of music they have purchased with a friend). This simultaneous removal from and intimacy with data is not determined by or somehow essential to the material form of the hard drive, but rather representative of the complex interactions between the mechanisms of hard drives, the staggering amounts of data they contain, and the lived experience of users.

Interestingly for us, Kirschenbaum also briefly gestures toward the increasing use of cloud storage, a trend which he says furthers the displacement already embodied in hard drives by removing storage from the machine altogether. He does not comment extensively on this (as the text was published in 2008), but his methodological approach of considering the materiality of storage without making deterministic arguments about its influence should provide a valuable framework for us to take up reading and writing using cloud-computing in discussion if we wish.

Works Cited and Referenced

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Grammatology of the Hard Drive.” Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008. EBook.

Norman, Donald A. “Affordances, Conventions and Design.” Interactions (May/June 1999): 38-42. Print.

About meganf

Queer, Marxist-feminist DH scholar out in the Wild West (Alberta) blogging about all the things.

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