Do we need to know about the medial ideology?

Reading the book for this week, and for some reason, this particular quote by Jacques Derrida from an interview got my attention:

“With pens and typewriters you think you know how it works, how ‘it responds.’ Whereas with computers, even if people know how to use them up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking –at any rate, don’t know– how the internal demon of the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys. This secret with no mystery frequently marks our dependence in relation to many instruments of modern technology. We know how to use them and what they are for, without knowing what goes on with them, in them, on their side” (88).

Certainly, we love our laptops, smartphones, video games consoles, cameras, etc. Most users just choose to use the technology at their hands to do the basics: write, email, search for information, play – most of them don’t like reading on the digital gadget I’ve noticed. Others users have enough understanding of their gadgets as to first buy the product according to their needs and then be able to use it properly, to fix a little bug, or to replace a broken part. Very few people actually know what goes on in the machine when using it, and are usually those who create or advance the technology for those careless users. Everyone who has access to technology is now dependent of the many instruments on hand. Whichever group one belongs to, though, seems to be of little importance when analyzing how the development of bigger storage media has changed the relationship between the human and the machine.

To that change and the unknown realm of the computer processing, the “internal demon of the apparatus,” is to what Kirschenbaum is going to pay attention in his book Mechanism. New Media and the Forensic Imagination. He writes about it due to many reasons, that I gather as: 1) “we need to recapture [the] role [ of storage technologies] in the cultural history of computing; 2) Agrippa being hacked and thus breaking its main characteristic of destroying itself once opened; and the recovery of hard drives from the WTC; but most importantly, 3) it is in that particular place that electronic texts, as “artifacts-mechanisms -subject to material and historical forms of understanding” (17), are stored for us to read.

These texts are functionally inmaterial, they cannot be handled, touched, read with the eye. Nonetheless, since they resemble traditional forms of inscriptions in the process of creation, they fall in the realm of humanities. They “assigns value to time, history, and social or material circumstance – even trauma and wear – as part of our thinking… . Product and process, artifact and event, forensic and formal, awareness of the mechanism modulates inscription and transmission through the singularity of a digital present” (23). We have to pay attention to them as they are new forms representations.

Representations that are going to be stored forever. The author makes it clear when he repeats again and again, in many different ways, that “Every contact leaves a trace.” And forensic investigation can discover those traces no matter how hard we try to erase a document from a disc. But, following Mark Bernstein account on the cost of choosing what to dismiss being higher than the possibility of saving everything that we can possibly imagine, I ask: do we really want to have all our digital experience saved for the eternity? To which extent is it necessary to preserve all electronic textuality? We might be “prisoners of the present” (Leyton). Forensic investigation is recovering the past through the discovery of past objects. Such investigation helps in getting some tangible or visual instance from the “medial ideology” that is impossible to uncover for most people.

Now, given Kirschenbaum’s notions, I wonder, yet again: Should everyone know how electronic gadgets work? No. Should they know about the implications of using them in one way or another? Yes.

As a matter of fact, I have never heard about Mystery House before, for instance. Or I have never seen an Apple II. Some may think this to be a huge ignorance on my part. But, I happened to be born when everything was being developed or was already on the market. So when I was able to play video games Olentzero left a Nintendo 64 under the Christmas tree (I think I was 8-9 and still play with it sometimes); and by the time I had a computer (I was 12), it was running Windows Me, and I got to play The Sims for hours, along with my many other games, as well as writing papers for high school. No one taught me how to use the computer, I learnt. I broke it, I fixed it. Then I got Internet connection, and I learnt my way through the surfing of the web.

I think that my point here is that, unless someone is really interested in computers or wants to work on forensic investigations, etc. there is no need to really be able to clearly see how things work. However, everyone should be aware of the implications of using electronic devices, and that every online/electronic text is stored arbitrarily for you to never be able to erase traces – so careful if you are doing something ropey.

Now, the question that comes up many times in class, should digital humanists know the how in their working process? Or should they just use it as a tool for further research of their different fields? To what extent would it help to know how the hard drive where all the images of an archive works to someone who wants to analyse the pictures?

I would really find it interesting to learn how everything works; but I believe I won’t have enough time to be capable of understanding everything that is going on in the computer while I write this post, checking the default dictionary on the Mac, listening to music on iTunes, and having an intermittent chat on Facebook with a friend on my second desktop. That gets up my nose quite a lot. I would love to know. But I like getting broad knowledge of a couple of things instead of wandering around many to end up knowing nothing.

And now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to copy some scanned copies of an old book to an external hard drive to later on extract the text and work with it.

Work cited:

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanism. New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT University Press, 2008.

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3 thoughts on “Do we need to know about the medial ideology?

  1. I was also struck by Derrida’s quote as it seems to imply both that we do not really understand other mechanisms, though we pretend to do so, and that there is something magical, if not diabolic, about computers.

    But the genius of books like Mechanisms is that they do reveal enough about the formal, physical function to alter perceptions of digital media. To reground them without treating them as merely the same as analog mechanisms.

    Mystery House is a perfect case study. Even though it is very old and very small, the principles remain strikingly similar to games on the N64 or modern optical drive systems, however large.

    It’s not unlike choosing to study a particular small city because it has a large, but not insurmountably so, corpus of official and private documents. With some effort, one might read nearly everything written in a week, a month, or even a year.

  2. While I second your thought that a minimum knowledge on how the mechanisms of a machine function would perhaps suffice, but Kirschenbaum emphasizes on the need for a forensic approach to counter some of the vague mythifications that have defined our perception vis-à-vis most works in digital media. Reading digital media should not be singled out from the specific technological mechanisms on which it depends.

  3. Pingback: My computer ♥ literature

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